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The Boeing 737 Max 9 is flying again. But the company's reputation isn't

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The Boeing 737 MAX 9 is flying again. More than 170 planes have been grounded since a fuselage panel blew off an Alaska Airlines flight in midair three weeks ago. Now, the first batch of those jets is returning to service after a mandated safety inspection, but Boeing's reputation will take a lot longer to repair, as NPR's Joel Rose reports.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Thank you for helping us keep PDX safe and secure.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: It's been three weeks to the day since Flight 1282 took off from Portland International Airport and came right back again, missing a door plug panel. Now, some of the first Boeing 737 MAX 9 flights since are taking off from this same airport, and Alaska Airlines customers know it.

CORRIE SAVIO: I never paid any attention until this happened as to what I was flying in.

ROSE: But Corrie Savio says she will now. Her traveling companion, James Van Arsdale, says the incident changed his opinion of Boeing.

JAMES VAN ASRDALE: It certainly gave me pause. It made me feel less confident about Boeing...

ROSE: Van Arsdale said he would not feel comfortable flying on a MAX 9 today.

VAN ARSDALE: ...Of course, until I am confident that the problem has been fixed. And I still don't think it has.

ROSE: No one was seriously injured, but the latest incident on a Boeing MAX jet has renewed big questions about the company's quality control. Industry analysts say Boeing has even bigger problems as it struggles to hold onto its share of the market for commercial planes.

RICHARD ABOULAFIA: People are focused on one incident, which is embarrassing. But it's actually been a series of incidents, and it's worse than that.

ROSE: Richard Aboulafia is an aviation analyst. He thinks Boeing has failed to learn some basic lessons from two deadly crashes of 737 MAX 8 jets in 2018 and 2019 that killed 346 people. Aboulafia says Boeing's management is so focused on cutting costs and speeding up production that it's lost sight of the basics, like safety and quality control.

ABOULAFIA: It's a broader company problem - a management culture that underresources and misunderstands what the people who build the planes actually need to do their job.

ROSE: This week, Boeing's CEO, Dave Calhoun, was doing damage control with lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

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DAVE CALHOUN: We believe in our airplanes. We have confidence in the safety of our airplanes. And that's what all of this is about.

ROSE: Yesterday, Boeing held what it called a quality stand-down at its 737 factory in Renton, Wash., part of an effort to show that the company is committed to improving quality. But it will take more than that to satisfy its customers.

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HEIDI GARDNER: (As Mary) That's why our new slogan is, Alaska Airlines - you didn't die, and you got a cool story.

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ROSE: Alaska Airlines was the butt of the joke on "Saturday Night Live" last weekend.

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KENAN THOMPSON: (As Rowland) We're starting to make some changes.

JACOB ELORDI: (As Joshua) You know those bolts that, like, hold the plane together? We're going to go ahead and tighten some of those.

ROSE: Alaska CEO Ben Minicucci was not laughing when he talked to investors this week. He says the company lost $150 million because of the grounding. Minicucci says the airline will try to recoup that money from Boeing, and it will push the company to improve quality control.

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BEN MINICUCCI: We're going to hold Boeing's feet to the fire to make sure that we get good airplanes out of that factory.

ROSE: Regulators at the Federal Aviation Administration want to do the same. They've taken the highly unusual step of setting production caps, both on the MAX 9 and 8 and two other 737 models that are awaiting approval from regulators, including the smaller MAX 7 and the larger MAX 10. Kathleen Bangs is an aviation safety analyst and a former commercial pilot who spoke to NPR's Morning Edition.

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KATHLEEN BANGS: Basically, what the FAA has said is slow down. You're not going to expand the production line right now. And obviously, that's going to hurt Boeing's bottom line.

ROSE: It gets even worse for Boeing. The company had been seeking an exemption from federal safety rules so that it could begin delivering the MAX 7 this spring, but opposition to that is mounting in the wake of the door plug incident. This comes as Boeing is steadily losing market share to its main rival, Airbus. Analyst Richard Aboulafia says Boeing management doesn't have a new plane on the drawing board to compete.

ABOULAFIA: They're not investing in the future. If you're not investing in the workforce, it stands to reason you're also cutting costs in terms of product development, and that is seriously weighing against their market share with Airbus.

ROSE: If there is a silver lining for Boeing, it's that most airlines can't easily switch over to buy from Airbus because the backlog for new orders is massive. That means airlines have no choice but to stick with Boeing if they want new planes before the end of the decade. And ultimately, travelers may not have much choice either.

Joel Rose, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF KAYTRANADA'S "WEIGHT OFF") 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
Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.