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What's Next For Boeing


Boeing faces fresh scrutiny over crashes of two of its 737 Max aircraft - Ethiopian Airlines last month and October's Lion Air flight that went down in a similar fashion. Three hundred forty-six people died in those two incidents. Boeing now finds itself answering some difficult questions as investigations continue. NPR's Russell Lewis joins us. Russell, thanks so much for being with us.

RUSSELL LEWIS, BYLINE: Yes. You're welcome.

SIMON: So many developments this week, one on top of another - what do you see as the most significant?

LEWIS: Well, there are a few notable ones. On Monday, Boeing said its software update to fix a flight control system would be further delayed by weeks. Now, let's remember that these two accidents were very similar. Pilots of the jets - they took off. And almost right away, the crews began to struggle to control the planes, which kept repeatedly nosing down regardless of what the pilots tried to do. In both instances, the planes overwhelmed the crews, and they plummeted to Earth. On Thursday, investigators in Ethiopia released a preliminary report in last month's crash of that Ethiopian Airline 737 Max. And a key finding that really jumped out to many people is that the flight crew actually had followed Boeing's procedures to deal with the problems. And it still wasn't enough to save the plane.

Now, this was a preliminary report, Scott. And there are still unanswered questions, including why the crew was flying at full power during the emergency, why they turned the flight control system back on after turning it off, as the checklist suggested. And we should remember that, all along, Boeing has been saying its planes were safe, and this was essentially...

SIMON: Yeah.

LEWIS: ...Pilot error. So the findings of this preliminary report suggest that that's not the case.

SIMON: And what does Boeing say now?

LEWIS: Well, they're a bit more contrite, certainly. Boeing had been accused of being arrogant, of pointing fingers at substandard training at smaller airlines around the world. And that's changed. On Thursday, the CEO of Boeing, Dennis Muilenberg, said the company accepted responsibility, saying their flight control system activated in ways that it shouldn't have and caused these two accidents. But he took it a bit further, though, saying that it is Boeing's responsibility to eliminate this risk. And he said that the company owns it and knows how to do it. And as part of that, late yesterday Boeing announced it was cutting production of its 737 Max by about a fifth, down from 52 planes a month down to 42, mainly because they can't deliver them to their customers.

SIMON: What do you hear from the families who, of course, have paid the most awful price of all?

LEWIS: Well, you know, I just don't think that you can say it enough that 346 people died in these two accidents. And some, I think, are legitimately asking, why wasn't the world's 737 Max fleet grounded after the first crash? I mean, it was clear that there were some serious flight control issues when that Lion airplane went down last October in Indonesia. And so, at the time, while Boeing was saying that the planes were safe, the company was also working on a software fix after that crash and were reportedly almost done with it when the Ethiopian jet crashed last month, killing 157 people. And so the lawsuits have begun. We're beginning to hear from the families. In fact, the first lawsuit representing an American who was on board who was killed in the crash makes that point, that the jets should not have been flying.

SIMON: So working on a software crash - forgive me - working on a software fix, even as planes were in the air?

LEWIS: Correct. Yes.

SIMON: Anything you'd look forward to this weekend?

LEWIS: Well, I think, you know, what we expect to come next is that the Federal Aviation Administration will take care of these problems, examining how they took care of these problems, why it approved this plane with its suspect flight control procedures in the first place. And we should also remember that while that's happening, the Justice Department is investigating Boeing. Congress is investigating the FAA. There are going to be a lot of developments in the coming months.

SIMON: NPR's Russell Lewis, thanks so much.

LEWIS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southern Bureau chief, Russell Lewis covers issues and people of the Southeast for NPR — from Florida to Virginia to Texas, including West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma. His work brings context and dimension to issues ranging from immigration, transportation, and oil and gas drilling for NPR listeners across the nation and around the world.