Pulitzer winner Gates discusses his Boeing coverage
Dominic Gates is the aerospace reporter at the Seattle Times and is the lead reporter on the paper’s coverage of the 737 Max crisis, which on Monday won a Pulitzer Prize for national reporting.
The Pulitzer committee stated that the stories “exposed design flaws in the Boeing 737 MAX that led to two deadly crashes and revealed failures in government oversight.” Other Times reporters who worked on the stories included Steve Miletich, Mike Baker and Lewis Kamb.
Gates grew up in Ireland, earned a degree in mathematics and taught calculus in Ireland and Zimbabwe, where he me his wife, who is also a Times reporter.
When they moved to Seattle in 1992, he started freelancing while working odd jobs. Eventually, he landed a job at The Industry Standard, a weekly technology business magazine, before coming to The Times in 2003.
Gates spoke Monday night by Zoom about his Boeing coverage that led to the Pulitzer. What follows is an edited transcript.
How did you start covering the whole 737 MAX crisis?
The first crash of the 737 MAX happened in October, the end of October, in 2018 and was unlike other crashes. Many times an airplane will crash on the other side of the world. And it turns out to be an old, very old airplane in terrible bad weather But in this case, it was a brand new airplane, just out of the factory. It was perfect weather. And within a week, we knew because Boeing issued a statement. We knew something was wrong with the airplane because Boeing issued a service bulletin to pilots telling them that there was this new system on a plane that could push the nose done and what they should do about it.
They didn’t actually tell the pilots the name of this system. We didn’t find out till a little bit later that they called it maneuvering characteristics augmentation system, or MCAS. It brought the plane down. There was something on the plane pushing the nose down that had gone wrong and the pilots didn’t cope with it. So from that it was a quest to discover what on earth had caused this.
How long have you been covering Boeing and aerospace for the paper?
I’ve been doing it now for 17 years, so 16 years when I started this. After we realized that this was going to be a big story, I worked with sources within Boeing and within the FAA to dig out what had gone wrong in development of the MAX and it took some months. And in fact, I got a whole story ready. This was the seminal story that basically won the prize and also got The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal and everybody else on to the story.
I got sources within the FAA who told me that there was something weird about the way the MAX development had gone, that there was a safety assessment of this new system and that was different from the parameters that Boeing had an announced in its public statement about it. It took me some months to actually verify that was true. I ended up having to get documents and once I got those documents, I wrote a story about how the certification by the FAA of the MAX had been inadequate and how Boeing had done the all the work itself on the certification and it kept quite a bit from the FAA.
I got that story ready. It was ready to go. And I sent all the details to Boeing for comment four days before the second crash. Boeing was still working on getting me responses when the Ethiopian Airlines jet came down and killed another 157 people.
It crashed on a Sunday and the following day, we had a meeting of the team and the top editors. We were going to publish it on the front page on a Sunday, but we had a discussion that first Monday after the second crash. The question was: “Should we run the story now?” We didn’t know what caused the second crash, and I actually argued in that meeting that maybe we shouldn’t go with it, that if it turns out this is a totally different cause people are going to jump to the conclusion. If it’s the same cause, we run this story, but maybe it isn’t.
We actually worked during that week to report on the Ethiopian crash and we did a couple of scoops that came out that week. Those scoops made us realize it is it looks exactly like the Lion Air crash. And so we did run the story. That story ran on the Sunday, exactly a week after the second crash, and it created a storm of interest from all over the world.
After the story ran is that when you started getting people contacting you from inside the company?
Boeing people had been contacting me before that, but to be honest most of the work that went into that that first story came from within the FAA. There was more input from Boeing people when we did a subsequent story that focused on what had gone wrong within the FAA and pointing out the flaws in the system and why they had been missed. Subsequent stories focused on what had gone wrong inside Boeing that they had missed.
So there was a lot of work went into those stories. It was months of reporting. When I first heard about the details, I couldn’t write it because it wasn’t firm enough, it wasn’t hard enough. In the end, I had to push my sources and get documents and eventually it came through. Then we had a whole series of stories, including whistleblowers inside Boeing. That was a lot of work for the entire year and well into the next year.
I’m interested in the process of getting documents. Did you just have to request some of them from the FAA? Are there people feeding you the documents?
The FAA is useless. I’ve had FOIA requests with the FAA that took three years to produce a document that was totally redacted. These were documents provided to me by insiders and I had to just work my sources.
Was there a change in Boeing’s responses to you when they realized that this was a serious issue?
Boeing didn’t need me to tell them it was a serious issue.
It may surprise you to hear that my relationship with Boeing was good and continues to be good. I mean, they respect my reporting and I’ve been doing this now, as I said, for 17 years. Sometimes they’ve taken offense to scoops. So it’s been a little bit hot and cold at times. But recently it’s been a very fine relationship with the PR people there, and they give me access to the top executives despite everything I’ve written, which has been very critical of Boeing over the MAX. I think the company knows that what I write is important to them because their employees read me. All the aviation industry reads me and so they take me very seriously. I don’t have any issues with the relationship with Boeing
As long as you’re fair and honest and give them a chance to respond.
Absolutely. And like I said, before that second crash, before that first story, I told them every single detail. I said, “I’m going to say this and this and this, I would like your response to all of these things.” They actually didn’t really respond, then the second crash happened and everything went so much worse.
I’m assuming that you continue to write about this because the MAX is not returning this year.
The story of the 737 MAX is kind of going off people’s radars at the moment because of the coronavirus pandemic and the huge impact it’s having in the aviation world. So yeah, the jets are still grounded, so more than 60% of the passenger jets in the world are sitting parked. The story has faded, but by no means is it gone away, and by no means is it over.
Boeing still hasn’t, I would say, accepted full responsibility for what happened and hasn’t had the reckoning that’s coming. There are still major investigations that haven’t been issued and a DOJ grand jury criminal investigation, so I think that by the fall I’ll be writing a story about how the MAX has been cleared to fly again, that Boeing’s fix for the system has been cleared by the FAA.
But the story of what happened to cause these two crashes and kill 346 people still will continue. Boeing’s at this incredible moment in its history. It’s a kind of an existential crisis. The aviation business has totally collapsed because of the coronavirus. I think in the aviation world that as a result of the MAX crashes and what happened and what went wrong that a major culture shift within the company is necessary, to turn back from what’s been happening for two decades, which is a growing tendency to make every decision on financial parameters, and to go back to the Boeing, we used to known, which was known for its integrity and known for its quality and its engineering.
It’s such a drastic, difficult time for the company that perhaps that culture shift will happen.
Do you feel like your stories forced Boeing to act faster than they probably would have liked to?
I don’t think they’ve acted enough, but they’re working on a fix for the flight control system, and they have paid lip service to the idea that they need to focus more on safety and quality, but I don’t see evidence yet of real change there. I think my stories and that seminal story last March, that’s when the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, all the big national papers come in on the story. And they also did fantastic work. The New York Times had great scoops. The Journal had great scoops. And we continue to have great scoops. I think all that coverage was a tremendous service.
It put a lot of pressure on the company. It opened the eyes of the public to what was really going on. It put tremendous pressure on the FAA. It’s not a coincidence that the FAA is taking forever to clear this plan. They are going over it with a fine tooth comb, which they didn’t do the first time around. So I think my work and the work of the other journalists who have covered this story has had an impact. And like I said, the story isn’t over yet.
Why do you think sources talk to you?
There’s some tremendous people within the FAA and within Boeing people who really care about this. And that’s why they talk to me.
To finish, I think Boeing needs to acknowledge a bit more honestly what did go wrong. You know, they replaced the CEO. Dennis Muilenberg was kicked away, but the new CEO, when he talks about what caused the crashes, does not have a different story than Muilenburg. It is exactly the same story and that story is, “Oh, we did do something wrong. We failed to anticipate. We made generous assumptions about what the pilots could handle and we misjudged.” That is a kind of an indirect way of blaming the pilots again.
We know, for example, that another set of stories that came out that reveal that Lion Air a year before the crash had actually told Boeing that they wanted to give their pilots thorough simulator training. And Boeing went out of its way to make sure that Lion Air didn’t do that and told them, “You only need a couple of hours on a computer. That’s all your pilot’s need.”
So when you realize that, then the defense that the pilots maybe should have handled it better when you went out of your way to stop the pilots getting extra training just falls apart. So I think Boeing does need to acknowledge more honestly what went wrong. I hope they will because Boeing’s such an important company for this region and for the United States and for the world. I mean it’s a tremendous company, and it really needs to be fixed.