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Amid high scrutiny, Boeing angers federal investigators

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Boeing is in big trouble with federal accident investigators. The company held a meeting with reporters this week to talk about changes they're making at the factory near Seattle where Boeing builds the 737 Max, and the company's remarks touched briefly on the notorious door plug panel that later blew out of an Alaska Airlines jet in midair. Well, that angered investigators at the National Transportation Safety Board who say Boeing improperly disclosed information about the investigation. NPR's Joel Rose was at the meeting this week, and he's interrupted his vacation to bring us this update. Hi, Joel. Thanks for taking the time.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: What was it that Boeing said at these meetings that got investigators angry?

ROSE: Boeing invited journalists to visit some of these facilities near Seattle, including the factory where it builds the 737 Max. And it's the same factory where Boeing employees failed to correctly reinstall the door plug panel that later blew out of Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 in midair back in January. There was a tour of the factory floor where Boeing's leaders talked about lots of changes that they are making to make sure that an incident like that cannot happen again.

SHAPIRO: So far this sounds very innocuous. What was the problem?

ROSE: So in part of her remarks on Tuesday, Boeing's vice president for quality, Elizabeth Lund, revealed a few new details about that door plug incident. She said a Boeing crew that was preparing to move that plane outdoors reinstalled the door plug after some work to fix defective rivets on the fuselage, but that crew did not know that four key retaining pins had to be reattached because the correct paperwork for this job was never created in Boeing's system. Here's a clip from Lund on Tuesday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ELIZABETH LUND: The fact that one employee could not fill out one piece of paperwork in this condition and could result in an accident was shocking to all of us, and we knew this could never happen again.

ROSE: Lund later clarified that it could have been more than one employee and that exactly who it was is the responsibility of investigators at the NTSB to determine.

SHAPIRO: Now what's NTSB saying about that?

ROSE: Well, the investigators at NTSB are angry. They sent out a strong rebuke of Boeing early this morning. Since Boeing is a party to this investigation, it is limited in what it is allowed to say publicly. The NTSB said Boeing, quote, "blatantly violated" that agreement by sharing nonpublic investigative information that it was not authorized to release and offering, quote, "opinions and analysis on factors it suggested were causal to the accident," unquote.

The NTSB says Boeing has been party to many of these investigations over the years and it should have known better. And the NTSB also took issue with Boeing's characterization that it is trying to locate the individual responsible for the door plug work. The NTSB says it is focused on finding the probable cause of the accident. And the agency took a really unusual step here of sanctioning Boeing, in essence limiting the role that the company is going to have in the investigation moving forward.

SHAPIRO: What does all of that mean for Boeing?

ROSE: It is another misstep for the company in a year that really has been full of them. And, you know, the company brought four dozen reporters into its factory so that it could talk about the changes it's making to make sure that work is performed in the correct sequence, all the new layers of training that it's adding to make sure that hundreds of new hires coming into the company are getting the foundation and the grounding that they need. And instead, the focus today is on these remarks.

You know, one odd thing for me in all this is that the new details do not really change the overall picture of how this accident happened. Boeing had already said that there was no paperwork in the system created for this work, and so these new details are fairly deep in the weeds, and they still really do not get at the last big remaining question of who exactly is responsible for, you know, reinstalling the door plug in correctly. And yet here we are, talking about yet another error by Boeing.

SHAPIRO: Well, thank you for talking with us about it. NPR's Joel Rose.

ROSE: You're welcome.

SHAPIRO: And after we recorded that interview with Joel, Boeing released a statement that reads, in part, we deeply regret that some of our comments intended to make clear our responsibility in the accident and explain the actions we are taking overstepped the NTSB's role as the source of investigative information. We apologize to the NTSB and stand ready to answer any questions as the agency continues its investigation. 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.
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