Arguably the greatest achievement of human ingenuity, air travel has changed the lives of people in ways previous generations would have thought were unimaginable. An act akin almost to magic, air travel has connected relatives in other parts of the world, enabled long-distant relationships, and provided a mechanism for the quick delivery of goods and supplies in the event of an emergency, amog many others. I do not for one moment seek to discount this obvious reality, but rather to assess the industry today, in its current form and using a model aircraft heralded as the aviation industry’s most sustainable innovation to date: the Boeing 737 Max. I became aware of the 737 Max after two major flight crashes occurred, which ultimately grounded the entire fleet of aircraft for over a year. Now, however, with 737 Max flights resumed, much has been made of this aircraft.
A lot has been made about the Boeing 737 Max, Boeing’s fourth iteration of its iconic 737 airplane model, both at the design level, with its impressive array of technical features, but also at the energy level, with its increased fuel efficiency.
Pros: Obvious highlights include some of its design features and impressive fuel efficiency saving compared with previous iterations of the 737 model. There is no getting away from it - the plane is an incredible milestone in design and engineering. You wouldn’t expect anything less from Boeing. After all, they are the premier manufacturer of commercial aircraft.
Cons: Plenty. Firstly, Boeing seeks to limit the power of its workers through aggressive anti-union campaigns. Secondly, and most importantly, Boeing is in the business of war and death, and therefore it cannot ever be a truly sustainable company. Boeing is a hugely problematic company, not least because of the impact its products are having on the environment, but also because of the untold human suffering it is associated with around the world.
As consumers, we are left in a difficult situation. Air travel is here to stay, so how can we exert our power and take back control? An obvious way to do this is to avoid uneccessary flying. Take trains and buses, if they are available. We must learn to treat flying as the exception, not the rule.
The Boeing 737 Max is a family of aircraft consisting of four models, the biggest of which is the 737 Max 10 with a length and seat capacity of 43.8 m and 230 seats, respectively. With the exception of those limited number of aircraft incorporating increased amounts of carbon fibre, most aircrafts are made out of a mixture of aluminium alloy metals, examples of which include, but are not limited to, aluminium alloy numbers 7055, 7075 and 2024. An aluminium alloy is a composite metal in which aluminium is the predominant metal, and where other metals such as zinc, manganese, magnesium and copper, among others, exist at lower levels. Other common materials used in the manufacturing of most aircraft, and which are found in Boeing’s 737 Max, include fibreglass, found in the aircraft’s tailbone and flap track fairings, kevlar, central to the engine’s fan cowls, and graphite/epoxy, located on the rudder, aileron and spoilers, among other areas.
Key to the 737 Max is the installation of a CFM International’s LEAP (“Leading Edge Aviation Propulsion”)-1B engine, a high-bypass turbofan engine. This engine is central to Boeing’s marketing of the 737 Max on a sustainability front. And there is some merit to this. Specifically, the LEAP-1B, with its 18-blade carbon-fibre fan, achieves a bypass ratio of 9:1 (ie., only 1 kg of air pass through the core of the engine for every 9 kg of air passing through the bypass duct), which in turn faciliates a noise footprint reduction of 40%. Furthermore, the engine is made of advanced hot-section materials which permits a 15% reduction in the thrust-specific fuel consumption. In addition to fuel savings and a reduced noise footprint, the engine emits significantly less less nitrous oxide (NOx) than the Committee on Aviation Environmental Protection (CAEP)/6 limits for NOx emissions.
These engines are big, and since Boeing did not design a new aircraft, but rather improved upon the existing frame of the 737 model, there needed a mechanism to accommodate these larger engines. Unlike in the AirBus A320neo aircraft, Boeing’s direct competitor, the engines sit quite close to the ground in the 737 Max. This created the possibility of a nose-up stall during certain flight conditions. To fix for this, Boeing developed a control software called the Manoeuvring Characteristic Augmentation System (MCAS). It’s worth noting that in the two tragic Boieing 737 Max flight crashes involving Lion Air and Ethiopian Air, MCAS was repeatedly triggered, which is believed to have contributed to the crashes.
An additional fuel efficiency feature of the 737 Max includes the design of an advanced winglet that enables enhanced laminar flow, thereby improving the aerodynamics of the plane.
Aviation fuels are composed of a blend of conventional and sustainable fuels. For the industry to meet its aim of slashing carbon emissions, planes will need to run on 100% sustainable fuels well in advance of 2050. Current jet fuels tend to contain equal amounts of conventional and sustainable fuels (termed "50/50" bends). It’s unclear whether Boeing’s 2018 fight of a 100% biofuel freighter plane was a publicity stunt or an earnest attempt to bring about positive change in the aviation fuel industry. Boeing appears committed to demonstrate the safety and necessity of higher sustainable fuel blends. I will refrain from giving Boeing too much kudos here: as a leader in the field, I expect this transition to occur and I expect the multi-billion companies with the resources and expertise at hand to be steamrolling this change. Boeing deserves praise, but not an ovation.
Leaving environmental and human implications aside, I would normally say that technologies of this sort are an incredible display of human ingenuity. This time, however, one cannot overlook the shortcomings of this aircraft in light of its two recent crashes. There really is no room for miscalculations when it comes to designing and producing aircraft.
A key material used in aerospace engineering is carbon fibre. “The wonder material with a dirty secret”, according to writers from The Guardian. The benefits are plentiful: low weight, high strength, and generally more resilient at sea and during breezy conditions than its fibre glass equivalent. Unfortunately, despite the clear benefits, it is extremely wasteful to produce and difficult to recycle. According to Green Alliance, an environmental charity and think-thank based in the UK, carbon fibre could create huge waste problems for future generations if the material is not somehow made recyclable and reusable. Carbon fibre is formed by converting a carbon-containing polymer precursor fibre, polyacrylonitrile, into a pure carbon fibre by aligning individuals precursor fibres together using a series of heating and stretching steps. It is 14-times as energy intensive as producing steel. It is also quite common for around 30% of manufactured carbon fibre to end up as waste.
When considering the life-cycle value of carbon fibre, there are clear benefits. Currently, carbon fibre cannot be reused in the same way steel can, however, there is an argument that once a carbon fibre object is made, it will not have to be made again, at least for a long time. In that same time, a steel object might need replacing a few times. Its life-cycle longevity is perhaps not that bad. Also, carbon fibre is primarily used in the aerospace industry where fuel consumption is the primary source of carbon emissions. Therefore, having lighter aircraft, through the incorporation of carbon fibre into the design build, is of a key way of delivery the necessary emission reductions. Despite being difficult (though becoming easier) to recycle, there is an emerging market for recycled carbon fibre. Like all things, this material has a clear trade-off.
Kevlar, developed by the infamous petrochemical company DuPont, is similar in nature to plastics. Like all synthetic petroleum-based products, kevlar is slow to break down and poses a potential environmental risk if not disposed of correctly. Kevalr grade K-149 is typically used for aerospace applications, though little information is available on Boeing’s website regarding the grade of kevlar used in the engine’s fan cowls or in the trailing edge of the airplane’s wing. It’s difficult say whether kevlar should be replaced, given that there no alternative with an equal (or greater) set of physical and chemical features exists. The manufacturing of kevlar requires extremely high concentrations of sulphuric acid. Important sources of sulphur needed to form sulphuric acid include its recovery from oil and gas, and its liberation via metal ore refining (eg., lead, zinc, copper). These mining and drilling procedures are damaging to the environment and communities.
Aluminium alloys are essential composite metals used in aircraft production. Each alloy will vary, however, there is still a significant amount of mining required to first produce the ores, and then ultimately the metals (copper, zinc, manganese, magnesium etc), needed to produce the final alloy product. These carry a significant environmental impact. Firstly, the transformation of bauxite into aluminium is incredibly energy intensive. Isolated via surface/strip mining, bauxite is transferred to a caustic chemical bath of sodium hydroxide at a smelter/reduction plant. After a series of filtration, heating (1000C) and augmentation steps (with cryolite), the liquefied aluminium can eventually be extracted. This process is hugely energy intensive and releases large amount of perfluorocarbons during the sweltering process, which are estimated to be over 9000 more damaging to the environment than carbon dioxide. Additionally, strip-mining clears vast amounts of natural vegetation, destroying habitats and reducing biodiversity in the process. The extraction process also produces huge amounts of bauxite residue (called red mud, a caustic red slurry) that can contaminate local water sources if not properly contained. The human implication of extractive activities such as mining are well documented. In Hidalgo State’s mining district of Molango, Mexico, individuals living near the manganese mines have been reported to exhibit an incipient deficit in motor activity due to the inhalation of manganese-rich dust. Furthermore, like all mining activities, there is significant exploitation of vulnerable communities. Child labour is also frequently employed. According to Human Rights Watch, workers at the Chiatura mine in Georgia are frequently denied basic worker rights and regularly work in conditions that are deemed unsafe. Mining-related industries are some of the largest sources of environmental pollution arising from heavy metals. In China, water pollution due to zinc mining is severe in Guizhou province, and is found in both river water and lake sediment. Additionally, the environmental implications of this activity extends to soil and crop pollution.
Aircraft need to be safe. There's no getting away from that. I further accept that, in some instances, materials of sufficient quality have not yet emerged (or at least are not currently scalable) as credible replacements for these problematic materials. Having said that, I must evaluate the components for what they and for this I feel obliged to give a low score.
Founded over 100 years ago, then the Pacific Aero Products Company Ltd, The Boeing Company has had a massive impact on modern civilization through its commercial aircraft, which have made reality the once fantasy vision of air travel. The company, however, is not without controversy. And there are plenty of controversies.
The military-industrial complex, popularized during the farewell speech of then Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower, refers to the network of individuals, institutions and systems involved in the production and acquisition of military armaments and technologies. When it comes to the business of war, much of the discussion - and criticism - tends to focus on defense contractors such as Raytheon and Lockheed Martin, however, Boeing is among the top recipients of government defense contracts. For the financial year ending 2020, the Department of Defense awarded over $421 B in defense contracts, of which $21 B (~5.2%, fourth highest) went to Boeing. Raytheon and Locked Martin received $26.5 B (~6.3%, second highest) and $74.9 B (17.77%, the top recipient), respectively.
With these contacts, Boeing has developed - and is developing - a number of killing machines. For example, the B-52 Stratofortress bomber, can kill, with unmatched precision, from a distance of over 690 miles. Boeing develops weapons such as the Small Diameter Bomb (SDB) and the Laser Joint Direct Attack Munition (Laser JDAM), both of which can kill with precision from a distance of 70 miles. Boeing also develops fighter aircraft such as the F-15 and the T-7A Red Hawk. As long as Boeing is in the business of war and death, it cannot ever be a truly sustainable company. Period.
Boeing acknowledges its need to reduce aviation-related emissions. Boeing achieved a score of A- from the CDP (formerly the Carbon Disclosure Project), an international non-profit charity seen as the gold standard for environmental reporting. From the company’s 2020 Global Environment Report, Boeing lists climate adaption, transparency in reporting, greenhouse gas emissions from products, sustainable development, and the management of hazardous materials, among others, as the chief priorities of its stakeholders. So how is the company fairing? Well, in terms of the company’s aviation builds, each generation of Boeing airplane is between 15-25% more efficient than the airplanes they are replacing. Boeing is committed to "carbon-neutral growth" through market-based measures under the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) framework. According to the International Civil Aviation Organization, part of the UN, CO2 emissions from international aviation between the years 2019-2020 represent the baseline for carbon neutral growth. Based on current CO2 emission trends, this means an emission offset in the range of 142-174 & 443-596 million tonnes of CO2 in 2025 and 2035, respectively, will be required. Boeing is committed to stay below the 2020 baseline emission level despite its expected increase in traffic flow, as well achieve a total reduction in carbon emission of 50% relative to 2005 levels. It will achieve this through a variety of carbon-offsetting measures such as the use of carbon credits. According to the International Council on Clean Transportation, CORSIA’s measures will deliever only modest gains. The United Nation’s Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) describes CORSIA’s carbon-neutral growth aims as being inconsistent with the emission aims of the Paris Climate Accord. The long-term reliance on carbon-offsetting measures is an unsustainable and inadequate approach to mitigate climate disaster.
Boeing has additionally provided no credible roadmap to achieve its 2050 aims, which include a 50% reduction in carbon measures relative to 2005 levels, other than a commitment to research in the area of alternative fuels and lighter aircraft design. Aviation-related emissions are substantial. Don’t let the often-cited low figure of 2% of total emissions fool you. Factoring in the industry’s non-CO2 effects (other greenhouse gases, water vapour release etc), which create distinct warming feedbacks in their own right, the industry accounts for almost 5% of historical radiative forcing (that is, the warming influence of long-lived greenhouse gases). And this is increasing at a substantial rate.
Boeing provides a lot of figures, most of which lack context. Why use the 2017 baseline in certain sustainability targets such as water usage? Is this a credible baseline? If you meet your aims but your aims have no impact, would you still celebrate? I wouldn't.
Boeing has a history of hostility towards trade unions. Boeing’s workers have staged numerous strikes and walkouts over the years, beginning in 1989 with the International Association of Machinists (IAM), who staged a 48-day strike after almost 6 years without a basic pay increase, and continuing in the years thereafter with the Seattle Professional Engineering Employees Association. In 1999, the US Labour Department accused Boeing of impeding an investigation into racial discrimination at its company, and ultimately agreed to pay $4.5 million in settlements amid claims of racial and sexual discrimination involving more than 5500 people. An additional class action sexual discrimination lawsuit came in 2004 as a result of the firm’s personnel practices, with Boeing ultimately agreeing to pay over $70 million in damages.
Boeing’s most recent infringement on its workers’ lawful organizing rights came in 2009 when Boeing agreed to open a second assembly line for its 787 Dreamliner Jet in South Carolina, a “right-to-work” with laws that prohibit union security agreements between employers and employees. These laws govern the extent to which established unions can require its members to pay union dues/fees for union representation. Essentially, right-to-work states diminish the power of unions and starve them of the necessary funds to exist. Boeing’s move to South Carolina was interpreted as an illegal form of retaliation against its union workers for past activism, which ultimately triggered the filing of a complaint by the National Labour Relations Board in April of 2011, at the request of the IAM. Boeing, like most aircraft manufacturers, has a gross history of labour rights violations and has continually demanded concessions from its employees in various ways, including on pensions, organising rights, pay increases, and conditions of mandatory overtime, to name but a few. While the Boeing 737 Max was (an continues to be) manufactured in Seattle, a state with strong labour laws and a powerful union presence, one cannot - and should not - overlook Boeing’s gross actions in other states, as these are indicative of the company’s true values.
Reports have emerged of Boeing suddenly firing employees after joining a union or after obtaining a particular status of seniority within a union (eg., union stewardship). Notably, in 2018, after a number of unsuccessful attempts, over 200 workers voted to unionise in South Carolina, despite an aggressive election-style anti-union campaign on the side of Boeing.
On the human and social front, Boeing is gross. Zero planets.