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The long history between Boeing and the U.S. government

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

These days, when you think of Boeing, the words that come to mind might be door plug, 737 MAX, grounded. But before this month's in-air safety debacle, before the Ethiopian and Lion Air crashes five years before, Boeing was synonymous with something else - American industry and innovation - so much so that former President Obama joked he worked for Boeing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARACK OBAMA: I'm expecting a gold watch...

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: ...From Boeing at the end of my presidency because I know that I'm on the list of top salesmen at Boeing.

KELLY: And Donald Trump added this flourish to the usual presidential signoff during a visit to a 787 Dreamliner plant in South Carolina.

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DONALD TRUMP: May God bless the United States of America and God bless Boeing.

KELLY: Now, the special relationship between the U.S. and Boeing is now under new scrutiny. NPR transportation correspondent Joel Rose is here to walk us through how the relationship has evolved and what the past Boeing safety crises might tell us about the current one. Hey, Joel.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So, you know, normally, the U.S. government would resist putting a finger on the scale in favor of any one private company. As we just heard there, that has not been the case with Boeing. Why?

ROSE: Well, it is such a major piece of the U.S. economy, both as a military contractor and in commercial aviation. It is a huge employer. The U.S. government even has a special bank called the Export-Import Bank that extends financing for overseas buyers. Jokingly, it is called Boeing's Bank because the company is such a big beneficiary.

So the U.S. wants airlines and other countries to buy Boeing's planes. And right now, that is the MAX series. Boeing 737 MAX is the company's biggest seller ever, the key to its financial future. In theory, all of this is not supposed to affect how regulators treat Boeing. In the real world, the company has a lot of power. I talked to Jim Hall. He's the former chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, and he says Boeing acts like it is too big to fail.

JIM HALL: It's not complicated. There's a great deal of influence exercised through fundraising to members of Congress. There's a great coziness or familiarity between all of the parties. And so who's the bad cop?

ROSE: No one wants to be the bad cop, Hall says, and Boeing's leaders know that.

KELLY: OK. But people did start to look at this relationship differently a few years ago. Take us back to this moment - 2019?

ROSE: Actually, 2018 and 2019. There are two crashes of Boeing jets under very similar circumstances. They both involve the same plane - the 737 MAX 8. Hundreds of people were killed. After the first crash in Indonesia, Boeing maintained that the pilots were mostly to blame. And then, about five months later, there was a second crash - Ethiopian Air in 2019 - which was nearly identical to the first. At that point, regulators in other countries mostly grounded the Boeing MAX 8 immediately. The Federal Aviation Administration, though, was basically the last to take that action.

KELLY: The last to take action. OK. And so investigators started digging into what happened. What'd they find?

ROSE: They found systemic problems at Boeing, both with the design of the airplane and with pilot training. And there were some dramatic moments when Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg testified before Congress back in 2019.

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DENNIS MUILENBURG: We can and must do better. We've been challenged and changed by these accidents.

ROSE: Muilenburg was surrounded at that hearing by family members holding up photos of the crash victims. There was one mother there by the name of Nadia Milleron. She lost her daughter, Samya Stumo, in the second crash.

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NADIA MILLERON: Our daughter got on the plane completely trusting. And she never dreamed that there would be any problem with the plane itself, and there was a huge problem.

ROSE: That was Milleron speaking with NPR's Morning Edition the week of the hearing. And Muilenburg was pushed out, actually, just a few months after.

KELLY: OK. So Joel, this all lands us to the question of Boeing and how it is regulated or not regulated. And this curious fact that the FAA actually turned over some of its oversight responsibilities to Boeing employees. How did that system come to be?

ROSE: Yeah, this has been the norm for quite a while. The FAA has delegated some of its oversight authority to manufacturers, going back all the way to the 1950s. The FAA has come to rely more and more on Boeing, though, over time, as the planes have gotten more complex, and the supply chains have as well. Peter Robison is an investigative reporter for Bloomberg News and wrote a book about Boeing called "Flying Blind." He spoke to NPR's Here and Now earlier this month, and here's a bit of that interview.

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PETER ROBISON: What I traced was a distortion in the relationship where the regulator came to feel almost that it worked for Boeing - that the managers worked very closely with Boeing to speed production of planes, and the managers at the FAA really came to treat Boeing as its customer rather than the flying public as the people it was serving.

ROSE: Robison says he saw this accelerating in the early 2000s, as regulators were pushed to hand off more work to Boeing because they trusted Boeing and these engineers knew the planes best, and also because it was cheaper for the FAA. And around the same time, a lot of Boeing watchers say the culture at the company was shifting, too, to be more focused on the bottom line and less focused on safety.

KELLY: OK. So that's the system as it was. Then you had these two awful crashes - these two big 737 MAX disasters. What changed?

ROSE: Well, Congress passed a bill, and the FAA made some changes that were supposed to tighten up how this authority is delegated. They put more safety inspectors in factories. And a new CEO took over at Boeing, who said safety culture was going to be a bigger priority. The MAX 8 planes were grounded for almost two years before they finally start flying again, and Boeing seemed to be slowly recovering from these crashes.

KELLY: Yeah. And now we find ourselves at the start of 2024, and there's this latest dangerous incident on a Boeing MAX plane - this time the 737 MAX 9. Was this also a failure in design, in regulation, what?

ROSE: Well, there's a lot about this incident that is different. We're talking about an Alaska Airlines flight earlier this month where a panel known as a door plug blew out in midair. The investigation is still ongoing into what caused this. But, so far, it appears to be a problem in the manufacturing process, not a design flaw. And also, of course, no one died in this incident.

But Boeing's critics would say there is a troubling similarity, which is that the company once again seems to be putting the bottom line ahead of safety by rushing these planes off the factory floor at the rate of more than one per day. This time, I will say Boeing has moved a lot faster to acknowledge the mistake. Here's CEO David Calhoun speaking at an all-hands meeting last week at a factory outside of Seattle.

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DAVID CALHOUN: We're going to approach this, No. 1, acknowledging our mistake. We are going to approach it with 100% and complete transparency every step of the way and to make sure that this event can never happen again.

ROSE: One other key difference I want to note is the reaction of the FAA. This time, they grounded the similar MAX 9 planes very quickly, and they seem to be in no rush to recertify them to fly again.

KELLY: OK, so everybody's trying to handle this differently, handle it better, but it does prompt the big question - are all those changes in FAA oversight and regulation that Congress passed back in 2020 - are they working? Is it enough?

ROSE: The FAA says it is looking at bigger changes now in the wake of this latest incident. The head of the FAA, Mike Whitaker, said last week that the agency will consider whether to bring in a third party to oversee safety at Boeing, which would be a huge shift. I mean, the bottom line is the FAA is in a very difficult spot. They cannot inspect every bolt on every plane, but business as usual does not seem to be a good option, either. We are talking about possibly reinventing how the agency regulates one of the biggest players, not just in the aviation industry, but, you know, the entire U.S. economy.

KELLY: Thank you, Joel.

ROSE: You're welcome.

KELLY: NPR's Joel Rose.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUN B AND STATIK SELEKTAH SONG, "CONCRETE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.