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Boeing and other companies put safety at a premium

Some safety features are considered “optional” upgrades, putting people who can’t afford them at risk.

U.S. Grounds All Boeing 737 MAX Aircraft After Viewing New Satellite Data
The 737 Max, Boeing’s newest model, has been been grounded by aviation authorities throughout the world after the crash of an Ethiopian Airlines 737 Max 8 on March 10.
Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

The passenger jets that recently crashed in Ethiopia and Indonesia had something in common: They lacked safety features that could have helped prevent the deadly accidents, which Boeing charges extra for, the New York Times reported on Thursday.

Both upgrades were related to the plane’s angle of attack sensors, devices that read whether a jet’s nose is pointing up or down relative to oncoming air. One upgrade, called the angle of attack indicator, displayed the sensors’ readings; the other upgrade is a light that is activated if the sensors interfere with each other. The disagree light alone cost $80,000, according to CBS; the jet’s list price is roughly $120 million.

These features are considered optional and aren’t required by most airline regulators — but, according to the Times report, they could have helped the planes’ pilots realize something was amiss earlier, and some flight safety experts say they never should have been optional in the first place. “They’re critical, and cost almost nothing for the airlines to install,” Bjorn Fehrm, an analyst at the aviation consultancy firm Leeham, told the Times. “Boeing charges for them because it can. But they’re vital for safety.”

(Of the three US airlines that have Boeing 737 Max 8 and 9 jets in their fleet, only two — American and Southwest — paid for these upgrades, the Times confirmed. A United Airlines spokesperson told the Times that its jets don’t include these upgrades because its pilots use other data to fly their planes.)

According to the Times report, Boeing also charges for things like backup fire extinguishers in the cargo hold, another feature the Federal Aviation Administration considers optional, despite past incidents showing that a single extinguishing system isn’t enough to put out in-air fires. According to the Times’s reporting, airlines have paid for items like extra oxygen masks for crew members.

Due to the proliferation of budget airlines, air travel has never been cheaper — or more accessible to the average person. But air travel has become a race to the bottom for airlines, which try to save money by passing on costs to consumers by charging for features that used to be considered standard, like seating choices, checked bags, and even carry-on luggage. The news that both the Ethiopian Airlines and Lion Air jets were missing certain safety features raises a more troubling question: Are airlines putting a price on safety? Consumers can choose which airline to fly with, but they have no say in — or, in many cases, knowledge about — whether that airline purchased specific safety upgrades.

Mark Goodrich, an aviation lawyer and former engineering test pilot, told the Times that charging extra for non-mandatory safety features has become “a great profit center” for Boeing. But this phenomenon isn’t limited to the aviation industry.

In 2015, the consulting firm JD Power released a study revealing that most car owners are willing to pay for ostensibly optional safety upgrades, like blind spot detection, night vision, and collision avoidance systems — to a point. According to the study, buyers ages 38 and younger said they’d spend no more than $3,703 for new technology, and older buyers were willing to spend even less. But as the Associated Press noted at the time, some safety features can cost much more than that, and many aren’t available for cheaper or older models at all.

In 2015, when the JD Power study was conducted, Toyota only offered automatic braking on its Prius cars, and only as part of a $4,320 package, according to the AP. This feature has become standard on new cars in recent years, and the cost has gone down as a result, but it’s still primarily available for new cars. In other words, you have to be able to buy a new car to get upgrades like this in the first place, a luxury many people can’t afford. (US News compiled a list of the cheapest cars with automatic braking last year, the cheapest of which costs $16,900.)

Offering safety features at an additional cost essentially creates a system of haves and have-nots; it transforms safety into a luxury, not a necessity. Consumer watchdogs say this is a problem.

“Consumers shouldn’t have to pay extra for safety features, because paying extra means that they are not available to everyone and they’ll cost more than they should,” Jack Gillis, executive director of the Consumer Federation of America, told the LA Times. “By simply incorporating the latest safety features into a product, two things happen. They are available to everyone, thus everyone benefits, and they become cheaper due to economies of scale.”

Whether people can afford to buy individual safety upgrades is just one part of this problem. As last year’s wildfires in California showed, the ability to prepare for — and, if necessary, flee — hazards like natural disasters is also divided along class lines. Last fall, Kim Kardashian and Kanye West were criticized for reportedly hiring a team of private firefighters to save their $60 million home from the blazes that were tearing through Southern California. (The firefighters were actually deployed by the Kardashian-Wests’ insurance company, not by the famous couple themselves; according to NBC News, these private firefighting teams are primarily available for those whose properties are valued above $1 million.)

Similarly, more than a million people were given mandatory evacuation orders in the days before Hurricane Florence hit the Carolinas — thousands refused to leave their homes because they couldn’t afford to leave or, in some cases, because their employers refused to give them time off.

These aren’t one-to-one comparisons: Buying a new car is different from buying a plane ticket, deciding where to live, or being unable to leave your home in the event of a natural disaster. But looked at together, these examples point to a two-tiered system where safety is only guaranteed to those who can afford it, often with deadly consequences.

In the case of the Boeing jets, the New York Times reports that the manufacturer will soon make certain features like the disagree light standard on all new jets. If investigators determine that those missing upgrades could have prevented both the Ethiopian and Indonesian crashes, it may be way past time to start thinking of safety upgrades as a necessity, not a luxury.

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Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the price of the cheapest car on US News’s roundup.