DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in today for Terry Gross. Before we hear my interview about what led to the two deadly crashes of the Boeing 737 Max aircraft, I want to let you know that later this week, beginning Wednesday, we'll devote FRESH AIR to a three-day tribute to the brilliant composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. We'll hear interviews from our archive with Sondheim, as well as people who worked with him, including James Lapine, who wrote the book for the Sondheim musical "Sunday In The Park With George," "Into The Woods" and "Passion." That's starting Wednesday. And now, onto today's interview.
It might seem like a lifetime ago now, but it was less than three years ago that the Federal Aviation Administration grounded the Boeing 737 Max aircraft after two crashes in the space of five months that killed 346 people. Much has come to light about the 737 saga - how Boeing misled regulators and kept information from pilots about risks in the plane's software. In October, a former Boeing executive was indicted for fraud in connection with his role in the 737 certification by the FAA. And earlier this month, Boeing admitted liability in the crash of an Ethiopian Airlines 737 in March 2019.
Our guest today, investigative reporter Peter Robison, says there's another story behind the 737 tragedy. In a new book, he writes that in recent decades, The Boeing Company changed from a company run by engineers who insisted on quality to one that prized profits and shareholder value over safety and embraced strategies of cost-cutting, outsourcing, union busting and co-opting regulators. The impact on the redesign of its 737 aircraft, he writes, was disastrous.
Peter Robison is an investigative reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek. His book is "Flying Blind: The 737 MAX Tragedy And The Fall Of Boeing."
Well, Peter Robison, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, this is a story in part about a change in corporate culture. Take us back to the old Boeing, one more driven by engineers and committed to quality. Give us a sense of the kind of leadership it had and the corporate culture that prevailed.
PETER ROBISON: Thanks for having me. The Boeing that we think of as the Boeing that built the jet age was really created by the greatest generation, by people who came out of World War II. That was a period of more collective culture in the government and in corporations. There were massive unions at Boeing, and there were engineers who really focused on product above all. There was a saying at Boeing as it was hiring people at one point that we hire engineers and other people. And it really prided itself in the way that it was ultimately all about the airplane. There were other manufacturers - McDonnell Douglas, for instance - that had a large military contracting arm and, to the mind of people at Boeing, really underinvested in commercial airplanes. But Boeing was all about commercial airplanes.
DAVIES: You know, building an aircraft is this huge project that involves all kinds of design issues and can take a long, long time. And if you discover a flaw, something that needs correcting, it can be expensive to correct it. What was the old Boeing like when it came to tweaking and fixing things that might be a problem?
ROBISON: Right. Airplanes are incredibly complex products. They involve hundreds of thousands of parts. And in the flight testing program, there are often surprises. There was always a saying that managers should plan for 20,000 surprises in any airplane program.
And there are several examples I cite in the book where Boeing did discover problems late in flight tests. There was one with, really, the original plane of the jet age, the 707, where an instructor at Boeing crashed the plane into a riverbank, and the investigation showed that it was his mistake in part, that he'd exceeded the maximum bank angle. But the chief test pilot at Boeing at the time, a fellow named Tex Johnston, decided that the design could also be improved, that there were changes that could be made to the tail to prevent the pilot from needing to take such drastic action, from needing to have superhuman skills. So the pilot went to the engineers, who said, we will fix it, and Boeing fixed it.
DAVIES: And it took time and expense to do, right?
ROBISON: Exactly. Hugely expensive.
DAVIES: Is there an executive that exemplifies the old Boeing?
ROBISON: There's one named T Wilson, who took over at a really down period in Boeing's history. It had built the 747, which was a huge leap in flying, the iconic Jumbo Jet. But it wasn't selling well initially. And he had to drastically reduce the workforce. He had a heart attack himself at one point at age 49. But he continued investing in airplanes. He continued investing in two airplanes simultaneously, the 757 and the 767.
And one thing that I look at in the book is the response he had after a crash of the 747. This was a terrible crash in Japan, where more than 500 people were killed. And the vertical fin had ruptured in the plane. Within a month, his response was to admit fault on Boeing's part, and it was a mea culpa that took even the Japanese authorities by surprise.
DAVIES: So when did the corporate culture change, and what drove it?
ROBISON: The culture really started changing in the late 1990s, and that's a period when I was also a beat reporter for Bloomberg News covering Boeing, so I saw it firsthand. And the CEO at the time, Phil Condit, was very drawn to the bold vision of capitalism that he saw from especially Jack Welch at General Electric. Jack Welch was pioneering another way to run a manufacturing company, and his way was about services and financial engineering and mergers and acquisitions. And so from that point, the commercial airplane side of the business was considered just one piece of the business, that Boeing would find its future following the GE model. And that's when Boeing moved its headquarters from Seattle to Chicago, and that really symbolizes the shift from manufacturing to financial engineering.
DAVIES: Right. There was a commitment to cutting costs, and one way that that was done was by outsourcing - right? - and moving things, like they - moving the training simulators from Seattle to Florida, I think. I mean, can you help us understand ways in which this undermined quality and safety?
ROBISON: Sure. So - but historically, Boeing's planes had succeeded because of communication. They - probably the last great airplane Boeing built was the 777. And for that airplane, Boeing created the slogan, working together. And it got these giant teams together every month to talk about their piece of the airplane because every small piece of the airplane contributes to the whole. And that had been Boeing's historic style.
The problem in the minds of people who wanted to pursue the standard corporate playbook was that it's more expensive. It's more expensive to have cross-functional teams. It's expensive to communicate and to have people traveling. And also, Boeing's unions had a lot of clout. And being based in Seattle gave them that clout collectively. So over time, Boeing moved work - pieces of the work to different states. They often moved the work to states that were nonunion. And the example you gave with the simulators is that Boeing simulators had been based in a training facility close to Boeing's headquarters, so if an engineer had a question of a pilot, they could walk over to the simulators and run through the procedure and check it out. Boeing moved the simulators to Miami and started hiring more non-union pilots and more contractors, which eroded the communication.
DAVIES: And if they're all in the same campus or the same area, then things that the pilots notice about the aircraft or an aircraft in development, in flight or in a simulator, can be communicated to engineers, I mean, easily and readily. And there's a feedback loop there. If that's all broken up and contract pilots are doing the training and the stuff is happening a half a continent away, what's the impact on design and quality?
ROBISON: The impact is that messages don't get through in the same way they would before. There isn't the same collective feeling about the project. It becomes individual tasks that don't seem to reflect on the whole. And over time at Boeing, as work was moving to different places around the country and, really, Boeing was pitting different workforces against each other to try to win the work for different pieces of the airplane, the same amount of communication wasn't happening.
DAVIES: Did you talk to a lot of engineers who were survivors of an earlier era about how it was changing? Did they tell you stories?
ROBISON: Yeah. This is something that really was crucial to engineers I talked to. This is personal for them. They had wrapped up their identity, their lives in this company. Boeing had always talked about being a family. And because of this shift we talked about starting in about 2000, it became a team. And they prided themselves on working for a company that valued safety above all, that listened to the technical workforce. And increasingly, what they were hearing was that it's about schedule. It's about cost.
DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We're speaking with Peter Robison. He is an investigative reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek. His new book is "Flying Blind: The 737 MAX Tragedy And The Fall Of Boeing." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Peter Robison. He is an investigative reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek. He has a new book about Boeing's 737 MAX airplane, which was grounded less than three years ago after two disastrous crashes. His book is "Flying Blind: The 737 MAX Tragedy And The Fall Of Boeing." So the Boeing 737 had been around a long time. Just tell us what kind of aircraft it was and why Boeing felt it wanted to do an upgrade around 2010 or so.
ROBISON: So the 737 was first developed in the mid-1960s. In a lot of ways, it's a very rudimentary airplane. It is designed with mechanical control surfaces. The modern airplanes are designed with electrical cables to the control surfaces of the plane. And the thing I learned about the 737 is that it was considered an afterthought when Boeing designed it. It's really a surprise that it became the mainstay of the product line. It was called the baby Boeing. It was a plane that Boeing designed almost reluctantly to respond to the DC-9. And the idea was that Boeing would focus on larger, more profitable planes like the 747. And the 737 would be something like the Chevy that gets people into the product line. And ultimately, buyers would want the Cadillac, the planes that are larger and have more sophisticated features. Over time, as deregulation happened and airlines became focused on costs, the fact that the 737 didn't have a lot of bells and whistles and was pretty no frills was attractive to airlines because it was cheaper. So over time, the 737 became Boeing's bestseller.
DAVIES: Right. And I guess - it was not a large aircraft. And now that airlines use the hub-and-spoke method of routing where you'd have a place like Charlotte where big planes would come in, then you'd need a lot of smaller planes to take them to other destinations, it was helpful to have an aircraft of that size, right?
ROBISON: That's right. The smallness of the plane became a real asset, and that's when airlines like Southwest emerged and started buying 737s in bulk.
DAVIES: We have a circumstance where I guess around 2010 or so Boeing is facing competition from the European builder Airbus. And it wants to upgrade its 737 aircraft, make it more efficient and make it more marketable. As this is happening, there is an evolving relationship between the airplane maker, Boeing, and the Federal Aviation Administration, which is supposed to regulate it. How is the relationship changing here?
ROBISON: The relationship is changing to one of Boeing being in charge of the decision-making rather than the federal regulator. This is something that happened really starting with the Reagan revolution and the idea that government is the problem, not the solution, that the agencies have been increasingly starved for resources at the FAA. The way that played out was in the acceptance of the need for more delegation of work to the manufacturer. And at that point, starting in the early 2000s, increasingly managers at the FAA were rewarded, basically, for handing more work to the manufacturer because it was cheaper. And I talked to many FAA engineers on the ground who had talked about how they'd always had a relationship with their own manager at the FAA, which was one of trust, that they would go to the manufacturer and work with the manufacturer to produce the design that met the regulations.
Increasingly, it felt to these engineers that their manager was working with Boeing to get planes through the process. It felt to them the technical disagreements might be tabled to avoid jeopardizing the schedule. And I talked to one who said that relationship is new and that relationship is toxic.
DAVIES: Yeah. I mean, when you say that the regulators were giving more work to Boeing personnel, we're talking about the work of actually reviewing plans, inspecting the work, ensuring that it is of high quality and safety, right? In other words, the regulators are taking Boeing's engineers' word essentially for whether the work's being done well.
ROBISON: That's right. Throughout the certification process of the - of any airliner, each system is checked. And over time, more and more systems on the airplane were being handed to deputies at Boeing. They're called authorized representatives. And more and more of that work is being handled directly by Boeing and checked over at the end by FAA managers but, as became clear with the MAX, not checked over thoroughly, and key things were missed.
DAVIES: Right. I mean, it seems as if - I mean, the FAA has always had kind of a dual mission of ensuring safety but also promoting the American airline industry. You noted that now that in some of the documentation and mission statements, it was referring to the aircraft builders that they used to refer to as applicants - that is to say, for certification - now they referred to them as their customers, right? This is a partnership, in a way.
ROBISON: Yes. This was a change that took place in the George W. Bush administration. An FAA administrator named Marion Blakey, who came from the industry - she later ran the aerospace lobbying trade group. Her innovation was to have people at the FAA refer to the manufacturers and the airlines not as applicants, but as customers. And she encouraged the industry to directly tell her and others at the FAA how the people - that the manufacturers felt their counterparts at the FAA were doing. It was really a turning of the tables in the authority. And it came to feel to people at the FAA that they didn't have the authority.
DAVIES: And was it the case that some FAA managers, the people - officially, the federal regulator - that their compensation would depend in part on helping the airplane manufacturer meet production deadlines?
ROBISON: This was an innovation that came in with the Clinton administration, which - after the Reagan years, the Clinton administration had more of a triangulating zeal for a reinvention of government and to make it act more like a business. And in the Clinton administration, there were an increasing number of performance incentives that would give a pay bump to managers for responding to stakeholder needs. And increasingly, its managerial targets looked at things like meeting manufacturers' deadlines. So yes, that did happen over time.
DAVIES: After the horrific crashes of the 737 MAX - there were, of course, two - one in Indonesia, another in Ethiopia - a lot of material surfaced about the process of developing the 737 MAX and, you know, the relationship of FAA personnel to the Boeing folks. Was there evidence that the FAA at times was overwhelmed by all this information or didn't quite understand what they were being told by the Boeing engineers?
ROBISON: There was. There was a meeting in 2015, where a Boeing team, including Mark Forkner, who was a pilot who was working on the training requirements for the MAX, likened the FAA officials to, quote, "dogs watching TV." To the mind of people at Boeing, the FAA was just another box to be checked, that these are people who don't understand the airplane in the way that they do. And as this pilot Mark Forkner said, even he didn't understand it. And also before that meeting, someone said, with all the inexperience present, we should be able to gang up on them and steer it the direction we want. There was a sense that the FAA had been dumbed down over time, that it wasn't worth their time, that they just needed to check the right boxes and move on.
DAVIES: So they knew that they could kind of manipulate the regulators, in effect. How much evidence was there that they knew that there was a potentially deadly problem here?
ROBISON: There were several moments where people at Boeing pushed for more advanced controls than appeared on the plane. There was a moment where several engineers went to their manager and asked for something called synthetic airspeed that might have provided a second check on the sensor that failed in the crashes. Late in the development, there was a lot of miscommunication. There were people asking questions but not getting answers. There was someone who asked specifically, what happens if one of these sensors goes bad? And he was told, if that happens, the system shuts down immediately. And that was completely not true.
DAVIES: That's the software system that would pull the nose of the plane down. They were saying, if the sensor was wrong, the software wouldn't work; the nose wouldn't dive. That just simply wasn't true.
ROBISON: That's right.
DAVIES: We need to take another break here. I'm going to reintroduce you again.
We're speaking with Peter Robison. He is an investigative reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek. His new book is "Flying Blind: The 737 MAX Tragedy And The Fall Of Boeing." We'll talk more after this short break.
I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in today for Terry Gross. We're speaking with Bloomberg Businessweek investigative reporter Peter Robison. He has a new book about Boeing's disastrous redesign of its 737 aircraft, which led to two crashes which killed 346 people. He argues that shortcuts Boeing took in developing its 737 MAX airplane were related to a corporate culture that valued cost-cutting and boosting profits over quality and safety. Robison's book is "Flying Blind: The 737 MAX Tragedy And The Fall Of Boeing."
So Boeing was developing a new version of the 737 that would have bigger engines and in a different place. It might handle a little a little differently. And I guess when they were doing some model testing, they discovered that in some kind of rare circumstances in tight, high-speed turns, a problem developed, which could be serious. What was that problem?
ROBISON: The problem was that the nose tended to pitch up, and it could lead to a stall. So what Boeing did was to introduce software that deflected the horizontal stabilizer, the little wing at the back of the plane, and then push the nose down. And the idea was that this would operate in the background without pilots realizing it.
DAVIES: Right. So rather than redesigning the aircraft, which would slow production down and be expensive, we just put a little piece of software. But that meant that pilots - there would be this invisible hand that might take over that they didn't know about, right?
ROBISON: That's right. And the thinking at the time was that that's permissible because this software is tied to two different sensors - one is - one measuring G-forces, another is measuring the angle of attack - and that that would be some redundancy that provided safety.
DAVIES: Right - because you want the software to be sure it's in this dangerous position before it dips the nose. What we know about these crashes, in fact, was that they relied on one sensor. And if it was off - because, you know, they're external; they're subject to ice and wind and - if these sensors are off, then it can trigger the software in a circumstance when it shouldn't. And then pilots who don't know about this are in a tough spot, right?
ROBISON: Exactly. And that's precisely what happened in both crashes. You had one sensor fail, left the pilots in this tough spot. If they had been provided training and told the software existed, they could have responded adequately. But they weren't provided training because other parts of Boeing, the management at Boeing, had insisted that pilots not be given simulator training on the Max because it would be too expensive.
DAVIES: Right. And just to clarify that, I mean, to bring people to a simulator, I mean, there aren't a lot of these. You got to fly him there. You've got to pay for their - to be there for three or four days. And they're very expensive to run. It gives you the actual feeling of being in - running an aircraft. But it's expensive, and you're talking about thousands of pilots, right? If every pilot that runs this thing, that's going to be a cost in - what? - hundreds of millions?
ROBISON: Right. Well, each simulator is an engineering marvel in itself. It can cost $10 million itself. And to run through the training, you need the pilot who's undergoing the training. You need another pilot, who's called the seat dummy. You need the engineers running the simulator. So these pilots are - they're staying in hotels. They're ordering meals. And that's being paid for by, ultimately, the airline or Boeing. That's part of the negotiation of every sales contract. And Boeing had made a promise to Southwest Airlines during development of the Max that if simulator training were required, that it would reimburse Southwest a million dollars per airplane.
DAVIES: Right. So they didn't want to do that. So what they ended up was giving them a little quick course on an iPad, basically.
ROBISON: That's right. They were given what's called Level B training, which is computer-based training. And what that means is 40 minutes of training on an iPad. I talked to pilots who said they did it in a Starbucks between flights.
DAVIES: As production was underway for the 737, you write about a guy named Ed Pierson, who was at Boeing, an experienced guy who raised some concerns. What troubled him?
ROBISON: Pierson is somebody who had worked in the military for a long time, and he was a manager in the factory of the 737. At the time, Boeing was led by Dennis Muilenburg, the CEO who was pushing for a massive increase in production in the 737 to more than 50 a month. And what Pierson was seeing was a huge jump in quality defects, in jobs falling behind. There was a tarmac where 737s with uncompleted work were lining up. And Pierson went to his boss and said, you know, I'm sorry to say that I'm hesitant about putting my family on a Boeing airplane because of the defects he was seeing. And his - he urged his manager to shut down the line, which he said would have been done in the military. And what his manager said was, the military isn't a profit-making organization.
DAVIES: He said he wouldn't put his family on a Boeing plane then. Huh.
ROBISON: That was about a year before the Lion Air crash.
DAVIES: The - so the 737 Max rolls out, and the first crash occurs in October of 2018 from an airplane in Jakarta. That crash occurred six days after Boeing got a safety award from the National Safety Council. Five months later, there was another crash in an Ethiopian Air 737 Max. I will say, people should read this book just for the details of what happens in the cockpit. It's a little more detailed than we can get into here. But what did these two crashes have in common? What happened?
ROBISON: What they had in common was that the pilots had no idea what was taking over their airplane. They only knew that some ghost in the cockpit was pushing the nose down. And they tried and failed to understand what procedure they should run to retake control of the plane.
DAVIES: And they both ended up crashing, one into the sea, another into land in Ethiopia at enormous speed, at very steep angles, right?
ROBISON: It was - these were devastating crashes, no survivors. And what it meant for the people on board the planes was that the pilots were trying to retake control of the plane so that the plane was pitching up and down over several minutes. So it would have been terrifying for the people on the planes.
DAVIES: I mean, the one in Jakarta that plunged into the water went in with such force that parts of the plane were embedded in the ocean floor. The one in Ethiopia made - what? - a huge crater and basically disintegrated. I mean, these were really horrific crashes. So after the first crash, the FAA started looking at the documentation about the 737 approval process and saw some problems. There were press stories about this software, which made the nose come down, making it clear it was related to that. How did Boeing respond to these questions that were being raised?
ROBISON: Boeing has testified that within hours of the first crash, its pilots and flight controls met and realized that the firing of the MCAS software was a factor. So they acknowledged among themselves some of the potential flaws in the design. What it did publicly was to blame the pilots. The CEO, Dennis Muilenburg, went on Fox Business and said that there is an existing flight control procedure that pilots should have been aware of that could have allowed them to control the planes. And even at that time, he was asked directly by Maria Bartiromo if MCAS was in the manual. And he said, yeah, it's in the manual. It's an existing flight procedure. In fact, it was only in the glossary.
DAVIES: Right. So in fact, they really didn't tell the truth about what kind of information pilots had to deal with this, right?
ROBISON: No. And they were questioned repeatedly behind closed doors. There was a meeting that I describe in the book between Mike Sinnett, who's one of the top Boeing vice presidents, and its top test pilot, Craig Bomben, and pilots at American Airlines a month after the crash in Indonesia. And the pilots at American are telling Boeing that they couldn't have handled the plane in those circumstances, that they wouldn't have been able to diagnose the conflicting alerts that arose. And one of these pilots even asked Boeing to ground the plane, which it did not do.
DAVIES: One of the pilots actually recorded that meeting, which was legal at the time in Fort Worth, Texas, where it occurred, right?
ROBISON: That's right. The pilots had decided beforehand that if what they were hearing from Boeing sounded insincere or was a PR message, as they later put it, they would record it. So the Boeing execs had only been talking for a few minutes when the American pilots started recording it.
DAVIES: I have to say, I mean, you know, you mentioned earlier that Boeing in 1985, when there was a crash with a 747 in Japan, quickly owned up and said, yes, this was our fault. This was sort of the polar opposite, wasn't it?
ROBISON: Yeah. And it's - again, it's a real departure from Boeing's history. There's a quote by one of Boeing's greatest engineers, a fellow named George Schairer who's actually the person who went to Germany after World War II and discovered the benefits of swept back wings, who said that what Boeing - what made Boeing great was that after a crash, it didn't call in public relations. It didn't call in lawyers. It didn't blame the pilots. It looked carefully at what it had done wrong and took responsibility.
DAVIES: We are speaking with Peter Robinson. He is an investigative reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek. His book is "Flying Blind: The 737 Max Tragedy And The Fall of Boeing." We'll continue our conversation after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Peter Robison. He's an investigative reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek. His new book about the Boeing 737 Max tragedy is called "Flying Blind."
You know, obviously, there were bereft family members who wanted help and would at some point want compensation. And it was interesting that at the crisis centers in Jakarta, I guess, in Indonesia after that first crash, lawyers very quickly appeared who were asking family members to come into rooms and sign some papers. What was going on here?
ROBISON: This is part of the story that I find unconscionable. After this crash, which Boeing was admitting privately was partly its own fault, what was done was that the victims' families were appearing at this crisis center in Jakarta. And families were brought into a room and presented with the opportunity to take the equivalent of $90,000. But as part of that, they would have to sign a release preventing them from suing in the future. And that included Boeing. That included the airline. That included any suppliers. And I talked to some of these family members. And some people who came into this room didn't speak English, couldn't read. They were told, you can't take it out of the room. It was cynical. And I've talked to one - a lawyer who represented some of these families who said he thought it was also racist in that in this developing country, people would be taken advantage of in this way.
DAVIES: And is it clear that Boeing sent the lawyers or had something to do with it?
ROBISON: Boeing and Lion Air were both insured by an insurer called Global Aerospace. What I was told is that representatives of the insurer, who worked with local lawyers there, presented these forms, and that Boeing lawyers would typically, in this crash and in others, work with the insurer to gather up these releases and then present them to American courts to have these cases move to less expensive jurisdictions overseas.
DAVIES: There was a Justice Department investigation of this. They started subpoenaing records from Boeing and individuals. And then there were a couple of congressional hearings, at which Boeing's executives had to come both the House and the Senate and listen to some blistering scolding from representatives. The Justice Department investigation led to, I think, a $2.5 billion settlement, at which the company agreed to take responsibility for the crash in Ethiopia. There was an indictment against Mark Forkner, a former Boeing official who'd been, I guess, a test pilot - right? - in October. That case is still pending, right?
ROBISON: That case is still pending. And he is to date the only person from Boeing who's been criminally charged. According to many people I spoke with for the book, it's unusual because Mark Forkner is not a particularly high-ranking executive at Boeing. He's a mid-ranking person who was carrying out the orders of his management. And, as I get into in the book, he's also someone who it appears was a convenient scapegoat for Boeing. His name was presented to congressional investigators just before the hearing at which Dennis Muilenburg was going to become the public face for Boeing. And the appearance of these messages from Boeing's pilot took some of the attention away from Dennis Muilenburg.
DAVIES: So to what extent did the investigations by Congress and the Justice Department hold Boeing accountable, do you think?
ROBISON: Congress did pass a bipartisan aviation reform bill that has unwound some of the deregulation. The FAA regained some of the authority to make appointments at Boeing. And the legislation banned any compensation based on meeting manufacturer schedules, as we've talked about. The Justice Department investigation, according to people I've talked with, could have gone much further in pursuing the management chain at Boeing. The $2.5 billion fine you mentioned is more of a headline figure. It includes 1.77 billion in compensation to customers, which Boeing probably would have paid anyway. There's $500 million to victims' families, which may have emerged in negotiations anyway. The amount of the criminal penalty is only $243.6 million, which, as the Justice Department noted in its own settlement, is the amount that it might have cost Boeing to let pilots train in a simulator in the first place.
DAVIES: And so you say that this disaster in a way broke Boeing. It cost them more than $20 billion and, you know, did enormous damage to its reputation. Did the management philosophy change at all, do you think?
ROBISON: There is a more public emphasis on safety. The word safety didn't appear in Boeing's annual proxy statements to shareholders for several years. And more recently, it's appeared more than a hundred times. There is a safety committee on the board. That didn't exist before. Whether that continues to change the approach of the management themselves is open to question.
There's a moment that really troubled the families of the victims, where Dave Calhoun, the current Boeing CEO, was asked by reporters at the New York Times whether American pilots could have handled an incident like occurred to the overseas pilots. And his response suggested that he still believed that American pilots wouldn't have crashed the planes. So that's a really troubling thing to hear.
DAVIES: Right - in a way, not owning responsibility.
DAVIES: Well, Peter Robison, thank you so much for speaking with us.
ROBISON: Thank you.
DAVIES: Peter Robison is an investigative reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek. His book is "Flying Blind: The 737 MAX Tragedy And The Fall Of Boeing."
Coming Up, David Bianculli reviews the new three-part documentary series on The Beatles from "Lord Of The Rings" director Peter Jackson.
This is FRESH AIR.
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As I see it, there are two very different audiences for Get Back, Peter Jackson's new documentary about The Beatles' Let It Be sessions. There are the most rabid fans, who will watch it and recognize instantly the stuff they've never heard or seen before. And for them — well, for us, because I'm part of that group — this Disney+ docuseries is a true treasure. For everyone else, the first part of The Beatles: Get Back may be slow going.
What you're basically doing is watching John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr rehearse, revise and procrastinate. They debate a lot about where to stage their planned concert and even what songs to include. At one point, they decide to revisit a lot of compositions they wrote and abandoned much earlier in their careers, in case they could use some to pad out the set list. One such song, "One After 909," makes the cut, and ends up being one of the album's high-energy highlights. Another number with a blatant country flavor, "Because I Know You Love Me So," surfaces for the first time here, with Paul dismissing it as soon as they finish performing it.
There are joys even in this early stretch, because you get to see the original Let It Be documentary, directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg, take shape. At first, The Beatles and the film crew assemble on a cavernous movie soundstage to rehearse, and on Day 1, Lindsay-Hogg actually approaches the Beatles and asks them to play more quietly so that he can record their conversations.
As tensions rise during early rehearsals, the cameras captures everything, including the moment when George responds to a casual call for a lunch break by telling his fellow Beatles, just as casually, that he's taking a break from the band — effective immediately. He ends up gone for days.
The tension behind that temporary breakup is the drama that dominated the original Let It Be film, but it's only one of three major elements in Jackson's expanded three-part docuseries. Part one, the first day of the TV series, is about the breakup. Part two is about the reconciliation — and the energy infusion that comes when the group moves to a smaller and friendlier rehearsal space, and when keyboard player Billy Preston drops by and instantly is invited to sit in on the sessions. And the focus of part three is the complete concert, which The Beatles finally decide to hold as an impromptu event on the roof of their own building.
The rooftop concert here, with much more music and material than in the original Let It Be movie, is the part that should excite and enchant even the most casual Beatles fans. The concert is amazing — and so is the group's joyful reaction listening to the playback immediately afterward. It's a great end to this particular story, but not to the story of The Beatles. Earlier, this documentary shows them rehearsing not only songs for the Let It Be album, but for three of their respective upcoming solo albums. They also rehearse lots of songs that would end up on Abbey Road, which they would begin recording immediately after that rooftop concert. And to me, watching and hearing songs like Harrison's "Something" take shape, with input from Lennon, is priceless.
So my final verdict on The Beatles: Get Back documentary is this: Even if you don't know much about The Beatles, or don't care much about them, you should watch the final third of this new TV show — then, after you're persuaded of their brilliance and are hooked, then work your way backward. But if you know and love the group enough to get excited by learning about their creative process, and by witnessing it in real time, this new documentary is made for you. And for me.
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