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From the New York Times, I'm Sabrina Tavernisi, and this is The Daily. Questions have swirled for weeks over what went wrong on an Alaska Airlines flight where a piece of the plane blew out into the sky, terrifying passengers and renewing concerns about the plane's manufacturer, Boeing. Last week in Washington, we started to get some answers. Today, my colleague, Sydney Ember, explains. It's Monday, February 12th. Sydney, welcome to the show.




Hi. So, Sydney, last Last month, there was this terrifying incident on an Alaska Airlines flight. A door fell off the plane while it was in midair. And since then, there's been this laundry list of unanswered questions about what went wrong. And ultimately, who was responsible for that? And so last week, we started to get some of our first clear answers. But let's start with the accident itself. Walk us through what happened.


Boeing has been under the microscope for about five years after two crashes in 2018 and early 2019, killed nearly 350 people. And these planes, which are Boeing 737, MAX 8 planes.


Important plane for Boeing and for airlines in the United States, right?


Extremely important. This had become one of Boeing's best-selling planes. It was flying all around the world. And these crashes cost Boeing billions of dollars, and it vowed to make the MAX 8s much, much safer. But then this incident in January happens, this time with a MAX 9. On January fifth, Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 takes off from Portland International Airport heading to Ontario, California. And about 10 minutes after takeoff at about 16,000 feet-We just hear a big boom. There's a loud bang. It was silent for one second, and then you would just feel and hear a lot of air going around, freezing pool of air. The plane rattles, the oxygen masks drop, lights flicker. So at first I thought it was just the window, and then I realized it was the whole panel. Passengers start realizing there's a giant hole now in the plane.


Maybe make sure it was an emergency in your intention.


Seattle, Alaska.


Well, they two just to cut their out towards your client emergency. We need her to come down.


God, that is terrifying.


Yeah, this is a really, really scary moment for a lot of passengers. I think a lot of them are thinking the worst. I'm going to please stay in your seat with your seat belt securely balanced until you are able to stand up.


Thank you.


I Pilots eventually make an emergency landing back in Portland. And what had happened was a panel called a door plug. That panel had fallen off the plane, essentially. There are no serious injuries, but it could have been catastrophic if this had happened at cruising altitude, roughly 30,000 feet or higher up, especially if passengers hadn't been wearing their seatbelts or if people had been moving around, as they often are when planes get up to cruising altitude.


So really miraculous that no one was actually hurt. I mean, they were pretty close to getting into a zone where there could have been some pretty serious injuries. So what's the reaction to this? I mean, aside from the obvious terror of the passengers.


Well, the question immediately is who is to blame? Is it Alaska Airlines? Is it Boeing? Is it Spirit AeroSystems, which built the body of the plane and then shipped it to Boeing's factory in rent and Washington? Is it the FAA and federal regulators? No one really knows in the immediate aftermath. As these questions are swirling, what happens almost immediately is the Federal Aviation Administration, the main regulator for airlines, grounds max nine planes with this door plug, so it amounts to about 170 max nine planes in this country.


Got it. That seems like a lot, right?


Yeah. I mean, the two airlines in the United States that fly max nines at this point are just Alaska and United Airlines. But these are sizable portions of their fleet. Alaska has 65 MAXIX, and United has 79, the most of any US carrier at this point. So this snarles their schedules. Pilots and flight attendants can't get to their next destination. They can't get home because the planes that they were supposed to fly on have been grounded. So it's a sizable number of planes that are doing a lot of work, and this becomes a big problem for those airlines.


What do the airlines themselves say? I mean, specifically Alaska Airlines, perhaps. These are Boeing's customers, right? How do they respond to this?


Well, airline CEOs come out pretty forcefully blaming Boeing.


I'm more than frustrated and disappointed.


The Alaska Airlines CEO. I am angry. He says, I am angry.


My demand on Boeing is what are they going to do to improve their quality programs in-house?


And then in addition- This echoes what a lot of CEOs When the NGOs say they want to hold Boeing accountable. They're really frustrated with Boeing itself. And near the end of January, something else happens that puts some more pressure on the airlines that ramps up the frustration even more. The FAA takes further action and orders Boeing to limit its planned increase in production of all of its 737 max planes.


And help me understand what that means. So the federal government is saying, You can't make this plane anymore, basically.


The federal government is limiting how many planes Boeing can make, and this effectively limits how many planes they can produce a year so they can focus on safety. At the end of the year, they said they were making about 38 planes a month, and they had hoped to increase that to 42 planes a month this year and further increase that in 2025. But this really limits that for the foreseeable future and possibly for many months.


I mean, the federal government is effectively saying, We don't trust you to make this plane properly.


It basically says, You cannot ramp up your production until you've It's important to us that you've resolved your quality control issues. But even with these limits on production, the FAA still clears the previously grounded MAX IXs after inspections and after they're deemed safe to fly.


Okay, but at this point, a lot a lot of fingers are pointing at Boeing, but we still don't actually know the answer for who's responsible for this door blowout.


Yeah, that's right. We still don't know who is at fault, but in early February, things get worse for Boeing. Boeing says that a supplier found two misdrilled holes on Max planes, and this was going to cause them to have to rework about 50 planes and potentially delay delivery of those planes as well. Boeing got ahead of in announcing it, but it's still painting a picture of something is a miss with Boeing and their quality control.


Which brings us to last week when all of this ends up in Washington.


That's right. On Tuesday morning, there's a house hearing with the FAA's administrator, Mike Whitaker, and he says they're going to increase their on-the-ground presence in monitoring Boeing's manufacturing. But he doesn't face the grilling about Boeing that I some thought or hoped he might.


The National Transportation Safety Board has released new information on the Alaska Airlines plane that lost a door panel.


But the real bombshell comes later in the day when the National Transportation Safety Board releases its preliminary report on the incident. It doesn't have the full accounting of everything, but it is our first official snapshot of what happened.


What does it say? What's in the report?


Four bolts like this one hold the door plug into the side of the 737 MAX IX. There are two at the top and two at the bottom.


This report says there are two pairs of bolts on the door plug that was supposed to help hold the plug in place on the plane's body.


That's critical information as the NTSB tries to determine why that door plug blew out. It appears it simply wasn't at all connected properly to the fuselage itself.


They weren't there.




It says that the bolts were there when the plane arrived at Boeing's Renton facility in Washington, but that there had been an issue that was flagged. There were damaged rivets near the door plug, and in order to fix these rivets, the door plug had to be opened. It was opened at Boeing's facility, and somewhere in that process, it was put back together and there were no bolts put back.


That seems like a pretty bad oversight.


Yeah, and the NTS FB is pretty careful not to say who exactly did this. They don't say who opened the door plug or who removed the bolts. But what is clear is this happened at Boeing's facility in Renton, Washington, and that pins the blame on Boeing. Even Boeing itself would say this happened on our manufacturing floor. We should be held accountable. So all of this starts to give us the answer to what happened, but we still don't know how this happened, especially at Boeing, a company that's already been under scrutiny after the two crashes of its Max Planes.


We'll be right back. Okay, so, Sydney, we now know the what, what happened, roughly, more or less, but we do not know the answer of how, right? This broader mystery. How could this have happened again at Boeing? So help us unpack that.


Well, there are still truly more questions than answers. But one of the things this incident did was raise more questions about the relationship between Boeing and its regulator, the Federal Aviation Administration. In the aftermath of two crashes in five months, US lawmakers grilled the Federal Aviation Administration about its relationship with Boeing. What we learned after the crashes in 2018 and 2019 was this relationship was really complicated.


A problem with software caused the planes to repeatedly nose dive when it was meant to stabilize the aircraft.


Those crashes were caused by a flaw in a new software that was supposed to help stabilize the planes.


An independent investigation has found the FAA itself was not fully aware of a new system on the plane, and the FAA delegated a high percentage of approvals, allowing Boeing to to certify much of its own work.


The FAA handed Boeing the responsibility for determining the safety of that system and basically delegated regulatory authority to Boeing.


Like Fox guarding the head house type thing.


Exactly. But there is a reason for this. The FAA has limited resources, and they don't have enough people to have enough inspectors on the ground themselves. Also, building an airplane is really hard. The people who know how to do it the best and who know how the plane works the best are the Boeing engineers and Boeing employees who built it. But this doesn't change the fact that there were actually very few FAA inspectors at Boeing's facility, just a small handful compared to the more than 10,000 employees who worked in Renton. So even before the crashes, Boeing employees were starting to blow the whistle about this, saying the relationship between Boeing and the FAA could cause safety issues.


I mean, this is a really hard problem, right? I used to write about the drug industry and the Food and Drug Administration, and it was the same thing there. A small, tiny handful of inspectors for drug companies with thousands of people Very difficult to actually police the things when you're the federal government, you're potentially underfunded. The federal inspectors, to some extent, are totally outgunned. But there was supposed to be a whole reckoning after those earlier crashes, right? There were lessons that had been drawn at that point about the dangers of this fox guarding the hen house. What happened? Did anything change?


There were some changes after the crashes in 2018 and 2019. The FAA took back the authority to determine whether Boeing planes were safe to fly. Now it's the FAA who determines the airworthiness of Boeing planes. There were also some Some other steps that both Boeing and the FAA took to ensure that this system where the FAA delegates some of the authority for inspections to Boeing works better. Then in the immediate aftermath of the incident in January of this year, the FAA did start putting more inspectors at Boeing's facility in Renton. In fact, the FAA administrator said he put 20 additional inspectors. Still, this is not a huge number of inspectors inspectors, but you can see how there would be criticism that the FAA itself doesn't have enough people overseeing Boeing as it should.


Okay, so federal inspectors are clearly very outgunned. But in this case, as we've Instead, Boeing is really front and center. This incident happened at the Boeing factory. My question, I guess, is the same as I had for the federal regulators when it comes to what's different from those past years. What changed at Boeing after those big crashes?


Well, after the crashes in 2018 and 2019, a lot of blame was put on this cultural shift that occurred at Boeing in the 1990s when there was a merger between Boeing and another airplane manufacturer McDonald Douglas. What a lot of people will say is the culture at Boeing shifted from an emphasis on engineering to an emphasis on profits and shareholders. This is a criticism that you'll hear a lot, especially from old timers at Boeing or former Boeing employees. After the crashes, Boeing did make a handful of changes. Its whole leadership changed. Its CEO was fired, and the company brought on new board members who had engineering and safety expertise.


That was, of course, back then, right after those twin crashes in 2018 and 2019. What are they saying now about those measures?


They're very They're literally saying that all of the changes they implemented after the crashes were not enough, that this incident on January fifth indicates that they need to still do a lot more. They've done a few things. One of the things they've done is they said they would make changes to the quality control processes, and that includes at its own factory and also at its suppliers' factory at spirit Aerosystems. Then one of the biggest things they did was when they announced their earnings for the fourth quarter, they suspended their financial guidance for the year, essentially saying this was not the time to focus on financial performance, it was a time to focus on safety.


A few moves here by Boeing, and healthy dose of PR, it sounds like, to convince its customers, the airlines, that it's actually focused on safety. Do the customers believe it?


That's still a little unclear. Some of the airline customers have said publicly that they're sending their own inspectors to Boeing's facility to monitor the manufacturing process. But at least one CEO, the CEO of United Airlines, has suggested that he might move his business elsewhere to another plane maker like Airbus.


Oh, wow. Okay, so that seems quite significant that customers would potentially be voting with their feet and going to a competitor. Is there any chance that this could actually be existential for Boeing? Like that airlines will really start giving their business to Boeing's big competitor?


I think that's still a really open question. I mean, remember, Boeing is an American juggernaut. It's a really important company for the American economy. Also, there are only two real airplane companies that make these planes. There's Boeing and there's Airbus. It's a very complicated process to change how you're going to design your fleets and to pivot if you're unhappy. These planes take a while to make and a while to deliver. Airbus can't possibly make all of the planes, and neither can Boeing. I don't think this is going to be an existential crisis for Boeing at this point, but I think there is mounting frustration. There is a sense of disbelief that you had five years to improve. These really catastrophic crashes happened. You vowed to do better. Everyone vowed to do better, and yet here we are again. I do I think Boeing has a lot of questions it needs to answer and a lot of reassurance it needs to give customers.


So, Sydney, I'm going to ask you the question that probably a lot of our listeners will have at this point, and that is, should I be worried about flying on one of these planes?


I think this is a question that's front and center for a lot of people right now. But the fact is you have to remember that flying is incredibly, incredibly safe. There hasn't been a fatal accident involving a major US airline in more than a decade. Oh, wow. You're actually statistically more likely to die in a car accident on the way to the airport than you are on the plane. So it is really, really safe to fly. But I think the fact that you're asking this and others are asking this really could be a problem for Boeing and really suggests that Boeing needs to solve the safety problems it's having.


Sydney, thank you.


Thank you, Sabrina.


We'll be right back. Here's what else you should know today. Over the weekend, Democrats went on the defensive to discredit what they said was a partisan hit on President Biden by Special Counsel Robert Herr.


This is a report that went off the rails. It's a chappy work product.


Bob Bauer, the President's personal lawyer, said on CBS Face the Nation that the report was substandard.


And so along with the legal conclusion comes this flood of characterizations, factual misdemeanors, pejorative comments about the President that are inconsistent with DOJ policy and norms.


Herr's report, issued last week, cleared Biden of wrongdoing in his handling of classified documents, but characterized him as elderly and forgetful. The report put a spotlight on what was already a primary concern for voters, Biden's age. In a New York Times-Siana College poll this fall, more than 70% of battleground state voters agreed that Biden was too old to be an effective president.


I said, You didn't pay. You're delinquent. He said, Yes, let's say that happened. No, I would not protect you. In fact, I would encourage them to do whatever the hell they want.


At a rally in South Carolina, former President Donald Trump claimed that while he was in office, he told leaders of NATO countries that he would encourage Russia to, quote, do whatever the hell they want to countries that he deemed to be in arrears to the alliance. You got to pay.


You got to pay your bills.


It was an extraordinary claim suggesting that he was threatening to incite an enemy to attack American allies and foreshadowed what could be far-reaching changes in the international order if he wins the White House. Today's episode was produced by Sydney Harper, Diana Wyn, Mary Wilson, and Claire Tennis-Sketter. It was edited by Lexie Diao and Michael Benoît, contains original music by Marion Lozano and Pat McCusker, and was engineered by Chris Wood. Our theme music is by Jim Brunberg and Ben Lansberg of WNDYRLE. That's it for The Daily. I'm Sabrina Tavernisi. See you tomorrow.