The Boeing saga has reached a new level of absurdity

Analysis by Elisabeth Buchwald, CNN

New York CNN  — 

If you’re a PR person, I can’t possibly think of a harder job right now than working at Boeing. It’s not just clean-up on aisle six, it’s clean up the entire store, loading dock and parking lot on a daily — if not hourly — basis.

And boy did Boeing have to bring out a lot of mops on Thursday. But this time, it kinda, sorta just maybe wasn’t Boeing’s fault.

Let me explain.

Boeing held a press conference from a factory in Renton, Washington, on Tuesday to talk about quality improvements.

But Boeing surely knew that they’d get asked about the door plug that blew off a 737 Max on an Alaska Airlines flight in January. So Elizabeth Lund, senior vice president of quality at Boeing, didn’t bother beating around the bush.

Lund kicked off the briefing by sharing why the four bolts needed to hold the door plug in place were never installed before the plane left the factory in October: paperwork. The workers who needed to reinstall the bolts never had the work order telling them the work needed to be done, my colleagues Gregory Wallace and Chris Isidore reported.

“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,” Lund said.

The lack of paperwork was not new information. It was previously disclosed in testimony before the US Senate Commerce Committee by none other than the head of the National Transportation Safety Board, the government agency leading the investigation. But strangely enough, Boeing sharing that information itself got Boeing in trouble with the NTSB.

The agency reprimanded Boeing Thursday, saying it had “blatantly violated” the agency’s rules.

The violation, per an NTSB statement, was sharing “investigative information” and giving “an analysis of factual information previously released.”

This would basically be like your friend making a public Instagram announcement saying she’s pregnant, prompting you to post on your story saying something like, “My best friend is going to be a mom!” And then the friend sends you an angry text demanding you take it down because it’s private information and you aren’t allowed to comment on it.

“As a party to many NTSB investigations over the past decades, few entities know the rules better than Boeing,” the NTSB said (yeah, government agencies throw shade too sometimes). But the NTSB is taking matters even further, saying it will no longer share any information generated by the NTSB during its investigation and that it would be referring Boeing’s conduct to the Department of Justice, meaning there could be a potential criminal probe.

The NTSB declined to provide any further comment to CNN.

Clean up, clean up everybody everywhere

When the NTSB’s statement went out, Boeing’s PR team went back into crisis clean-up mode.

I admit it’s hard to take anything they say at face value, and part of my job as a journalist is to be skeptical and question any claims PR people make. But I think there’s an ounce (okay, maybe closer to a quarter ounce) of truth in Boeing’s response to the NTSB.

It said it held the briefing in an effort to “take responsibility” and be transparent, adding that it “shared context on the lessons we have learned from the January 5 accident.”

“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,” Boeing said Thursday.

Without giving Boeing too much credit, at least some executives were trying to take a sliver of ownership. But apparently, that’s an NTSB violation. At the same time, rules are rules no matter how hypocritical they are. Boeing probably should have treaded more carefully.

When CNN reached out to Boeing, a spokesperson responded, “We defer to the NTSB for information regarding the investigation.”

The irony in all this is the NTSB’s reaction is distracting from the more glaring story here: how a simple thing like a lack of paperwork may have endangered a plane full of people.

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