On January 5th, a Boeing 737 Max 9 aircraft operated by Alaska Airlines was forced to make an emergency landing after a door panel flew off mid-air. No deaths were reported, but multiple passengers required medical attention, officials said. The cause of the incident is currently under investigation, but initial reports from the National Transportation Safety Board reveal that four bolts, meant to keep the door panel intact, “were missing or improperly installed.” United Airlines and Alaska Airlines — the only U.S. carriers that use Max 9 aircraft — have said that they’ve found “loose” bolts and hardware on some of their Max 9 planes. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has grounded all Max 9 planes.
As the investigation unfolds, however, far-right pundits and news outlets are ignoring the facts and focusing on theories rooted in racism and sexism.
In a video uploaded to X, right-wing blogger Matt Walsh suggested that “diverse mechanics” employed at Spirit AeroSystems, the company that manufactures the Max 9 door panel, were to blame for the incident. Walsh claimed, without evidence, that incompetent “diverse mechanics” were hired instead of “experienced” mechanics. “DEI is destroying the airline industry, and lots of people will die because of it,” Walsh told his 2.6 million followers. In a different post, Walsh criticizes women engineers at Spirit AeroSystems, saying, “What they lack in skill and engineering capability they make [sic] for in sass!”
Others have also decided to blame the Boeing blowout on diversity policies and, more explicitly, people of color and women. Right-wing commentator Ian Miles Cheong said, “The 737 MAX was put together by a team of ‘diverse’ engineers. Boeing is hiring based on DEI. No surprise that they’re falling apart.” And Wall Street Silver, a popular far-right account, claimed that “DEI is going to result in a crash costing the lives of hundreds of people.”
Elon Musk amplified these claims on X. The tech billionaire promoted a post on “Boeing and DEI” from James Lindsay, a right-wing figure who has peddled “white genocide” conspiracy theories. Musk wrote to his 169.3 million followers, “Do you want to fly in an airplane where they prioritized DEI hiring over your safety? That is actually happening.”
These arguments quickly migrated onto Fox News. “Attention Boeing executives, DEI must die, not passengers on your plane,” Fox Business host Sean Duffy announced. “This is a dangerous business when you’re focused on DEI and maybe less focused on engineering and safety.”
But this narrative has no basis in fact. Both Boeing and its supplier, Spirit AeroSystems, are not particularly diverse. Boeing reports that in 2022, minorities made up 35% of the workforce. At Spirit AeroSystems, minority representation was at 26% in 2022. This number shrinks as you move up the corporate ladder: less than 17% of the managers at Spirit AeroSystems are minorities. At Boeing, the number of minority executives dropped in 2022 compared to 2021. Spirit and Boeing also employ three times more men than women.
The overwhelming majority of C-Suite executives at both companies are white men. Boeing’s CEO, CFO, Chief Compliance Officer, and Chief Aerospace Safety Officer are all white men. Spirit’s CEO, CFO, Chief Administration and Compliance Officer, and Senior VP of Quality are also all white men. None of these people are being held accountable by right-wing pundits for the Boeing incident. Instead, it’s the fault of unknown, non-white Boeing and Spirit employees.
The Max’s troubled history also predates DEI efforts at either of these companies. Following the Max crashes of 2018 and 2019 that killed a total of 346 people, numerous reports have highlighted the flawed design and rollout of the Max, which first flew in 2017. A 2020 House Committee on the Max crashes concluded that “Boeing failed in its design and development of the Max, and the FAA failed in its oversight of Boeing and its certification of the aircraft.” And yet despite all this, somehow diversity policies—which mostly emerged after the 2020 social justice protests—are the culprit.
This isn’t the first time far-right personalities and outlets have resorted to this line of attack. Last year, a Republican lawmaker blamed the Ohio train derailment on Norfolk Southern’s “focus on DEI.” Right-wing media figures also blamed the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank on its “woke” policies. Both claims were swiftly debunked by experts.
While the specific cause is still to be determined, the facts suggest the Boeing incident was related to poor quality control standards, not diversity efforts. Long before the door flew open, workers had alerted their bosses of safety problems — but their warnings went unheeded.
Workers say they faced retaliation for reporting safety concerns
A recent lawsuit alleges that Spirit AeroSystems, Boeing’s aircraft parts maker, concealed “widespread and sustained quality failures.” The lawsuit, which was filed by an investor in 2023, claims that Spirit was “encouraging workers to undercount defects” and “retaliating against those who raised safety concerns,” The Lever reports.
One former Spirit Quality Control Inspector, for example, was instructed by their manager to underreport and misrepresent the number of defects identified. The employee, who had been with Spirit for roughly 12 years, “struggled with Spirit’s culture, which placed an emphasis on pushing out product over quality.” According to the employee, there was an “excessive amount of defects.” But when he raised concerns about falsifying documentation, his supervisor threatened to “fire him on the spot.” The employee ended up being demoted and was only reinstated after submitting an ethics complaint and alerting Tom Gentile, the head of Spirit at the time. According to the lawsuit, following the worker’s departure, many of his former teammates were moved to “different positions, because they tried to find too many defects.”
Joshua Dean, a former engineer and auditor at the company, made similar claims, saying that “Spirit has a culture of not wanting to look for or to find problems.” According to Dean, the company “undercounted or manipulated the documentation of defects to create the appearance of quality improvement.” Dean had repeatedly alerted his managers of misdrilled holes on the 737 Max aft pressure bulkhead, describing it as the “worst finding” he had discovered during his time as auditor. Months later, Spirit fired Dean on what he claims were “demonstrably false grounds.” Instead, he believes the real reason he was fired was “to intimidate other Spirit employees so that they would not speak out as…[he] had done about the mis-drilled bulkhead holes defect.”
Under constant pressure to get products out the door as fast as possible, many employees say that they’re being pushed to work too many hours. A former Spirit employee observes that “Auditors were overworked and spread thin, which led to significant frustration.” Meanwhile, “Mechanics were repeatedly required to work mandatory weekend overtime, and 60-70 hour weeks, which angered many mechanics,” reads the lawsuit.
“We have planes all over the world that have issues that nobody has found because of the pressure Spirit has put on employees to get the job done so fast,” Cornell Beard, president of the Machinist union that represents Spirit’s employees, told the Wall Street Journal. This isn’t the first time union workers have voiced safety concerns. Previously, union workers have opposed self-inspections, a technique advocated by Spirit and Boeing. Workers said that having a separate inspector, as opposed to conducting the inspection themselves, is crucial for reducing the risk of accidents.
Boeing, Spirit AeroSystems pushed for weaker regulations
Since 2020, “Boeing and Spirit’s political action committees and employees have together reported spending more than $65 million on lobbying and federal campaign contributions,” according to a report published in Jacobin. Over the years, the two companies have successfully lobbied lawmakers to weaken safety regulations. Spirit AeroSystems, which makes 70% of the Max, saw its revenue decline 58 percent in 2020 after the aircraft was grounded.
In response, lawmakers bankrolled by the manufacturer pressed the government to recertify the Max as soon as possible. Senator Jerry Moran (R-KS), a top recipient of campaign contributions from Spirit, asked “the incoming CEO at Boeing and the FAA Administrator…to work together and do everything necessary to get the 737 Max safely back in the air.” Congressman Ron Estes (R-KS) also sent a letter to the FAA arguing that the “[t]he process of recertifying the 737 Max continues to have negative repercussions.”
A New York Times investigation found that Boeing was behind a 2018 law that made it “harder for regulators to review Boeing’s work.” Boeing representatives also sit on the FAA’s Aviation Rulemaking Advisory Committee (ARAC), an industry committee. In 2017, a year before the first Max crash, ARAC asked the FAA to “eliminate or scale back dozens of safety rules,” the Associated Press reported.
Boeing and Spirit AeroSystems did not respond to requests for comment.
CORRECTION: This article has been updated with the correct date of the Boeing incident; it occurred on January 5th, not January 9th.