STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
People at Boeing could be forgiven for feeling relief that 2019 is over. During that year, Boeing suffered a second 737 Max crash with many lives lost. It faced a series of withering congressional hearings, and the CEO was forced to resign. NPR's Russell Lewis has covered it all and is on the line from Birmingham, Ala. Hey there, Russell.
RUSSELL LEWIS, BYLINE: Hi there.
INSKEEP: We should note planes sometimes crash. It's tragic. It doesn't always devastate the aircraft maker. What has made this such a difficult year for Boeing?
LEWIS: Well, Boeing initially blamed these accidents on the pilots and their training, all the while knowing that there was likely a bigger culprit - that a flight-control system that it designed called MCAS to help the plane fly in certain aerodynamic situations. Except, Boeing never told the pilots about MCAS in the flight manual.
And we should remember that 346 people died in these two crashes of the 737 Max. The first was in Indonesia in October 2018 and then just about five months later in Ethiopia. And in both of these cases, the pilots of these new jets wrestled the planes just after takeoff as the nose of each hitched down uncontrollably.
INSKEEP: Is it clear to you now why Boeing would not have said more about what was wrong with this aircraft?
LEWIS: You know, I don't know. I mean, is it fear of lawsuits? Is it fear of admitting it made mistakes or fear of its financial future? I mean, the 737 Max is Boeing's best-ever-selling jet. More than 5,000 are on order. And we should remember that Boeing is the biggest U.S. manufacturing exporter. Tens of thousands of employees and thousands of suppliers rely heavily on Boeing. And for whatever reason, Boeing wasn't as candid or forthright as it should have been. Here's Senator Tammy Duckworth lashing out at Boeing's CEO at the time, Dennis Muilenburg, last October.
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TAMMY DUCKWORTH: Boeing has not told the whole truth to this committee and to the families and to the people looking at this.
LEWIS: And, you know, fast forward to last month, Dennis Muilenburg had lost the confidence of Boeing's board and others and resigned just before Christmas.
INSKEEP: Is the Federal Aviation Administration also trying to regain some lost confidence here?
LEWIS: Yeah, I mean, that is the other part of the story. I mean, these machines, they are incredibly complex. Candidly, they're known best by the engineers who designed them. And over time, the FAA, the Federal Aviation Administration, ceded some of that operational certification to Boeing itself to certify that these planes were safe and reliable and not dangerous. And it is this cozy relationship that helped lead to some of these problems. And the new FAA administrator, Stephen Dickson, who is a 737 pilot himself, has vowed that he and the administration will be tough and independent as they work to try to get these planes flying again.
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STEPHEN DICKSON: The airplane's not going to fly again until I'm satisfied that it's ready to go and that I would fly it and put my own family on it.
INSKEEP: OK, that sounds tough. But is the FAA really changing the system in which the airline industry effectively regulates itself?
LEWIS: I think so. I think they are taking a much harder line with Boeing. I think that helped to lead to Dennis Muilenburg's ouster because he continued to sort of indicate that the plane would be back up in the air in a few weeks - in a few weeks essentially what they've been saying since that second accident back in March. And the new FAA administrator said, knock it off. We have no timeline for when this plane is going to fly again. We're not going to say it's safe until we've deemed it safe, not you.
INSKEEP: Russell, thanks so much.
LEWIS: You're welcome.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Russell Lewis joining us from our member station WBHM in Birmingham.
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