Even after 16 years of covering aerospace every day, reporter Dominic Gates still gets excited about flying.
“I haven’t lost my sense of wonder at what these machines do,” he says. “It’s millions of parts, all coming together and flying safely.”
But it’s when planes don’t fly safely that Dominic’s work becomes even more indispensable.
In the wake of two deadly crashes of the Boeing 737 MAX, Dominic has broken national and international stories about the manufacturing and safety approval processes. He recently shared his expertise in an Ask Me Anything session with readers on Reddit.
Dominic took an unconventional path to journalism. He grew up in Ireland, earned a degree in mathematics and taught calculus in Ireland and Zimbabwe (where he met freelance journalist Nina Shapiro, now his wife and fellow Seattle 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 IT business magazine, before coming to The Seattle Times in 2003.
“I was incredibly lucky,” he said. “This is my first newspaper job, and I came in to do the Boeing beat at The Seattle Times. It’s an incredible position to be in.”
We asked Dominic about making technical details understandable, his own air travel and his perspective from his years of covering aerospace.
What’s changed about covering Boeing and aviation since you started on the beat?
Some of the practical things have changed. There used to be two of us and now it’s just me.
One of the great things about this beat is that I talk to blue-collar workers, I talk to white-collar engineers, I talk to executives. But when I first joined the paper in 2003 and started covering Boeing, it seemed like everybody who worked at Boeing hated the company. It was a really bad time: 50,000 people had been laid off in the previous six years.
That began to change at the end of my first year, when they announced that they were going to make a new airplane, the 787. Gradually over the next few years, people regained their faith, they started hiring again and morale picked up. Over the years, there’s been a constant sway of opinion within the workforce as to how they view the company, sometimes positive, sometimes negative.
How have you approached covering the 737 MAX crisis over the past few months?
I initially did what I always do: Talk to Boeing and FAA sources I felt might have information. In January, I first heard about the FAA’s side of the certification of the MAX and the safety analysis of the flight-control system. It took until March to confirm the details. That was my first big story on the crisis.
Since March, after the second crash, the way I work has changed because we have a whole team of reporters (including Mike Baker, Steve Miletich and Paul Roberts) working on coverage, although not all full time. That’s helped a lot because there are so many aspects and so much to cover. We have meetings after each big story to talk about what’s next. There’s such a sense of competition with The Wall Street Journal and New York Times putting out big Sunday stories.
I’ve never been in quite as intense a news environment as this. There’s no letup, and you have to keep going constantly, keeping up with the information being put out by other outlets and gathering your own information.
The aerospace beat has global impact and relevance, as the 737 MAX crisis has shown. How does being based in Seattle give you an edge in covering the topic?
I think we are able to hold our own because I have the local connections that [national outlets] don’t have. All these people in the Seattle area, including many retired Boeing people, are very interested in the story, very eager to talk about it and share their ideas about it.
It just takes a lot of time to build relationships, and I’ve been here a long time, so I have those relationships.
My relationship with Boeing communications over the years has been pretty good. I’ve written stories that they hated, but I think they’ve always recognized that I try to be accurate and that I’m fair and I tell their side of it.
Then I have separate relationships with individuals who happen to work for Boeing. So I get all sides, I get the company’s viewpoint, but I also get critiques of the company.
What’s your strategy for breaking down complex technical issues for readers?
Well, I’m a layman myself. I’m not an engineer, I’m not an aerospace mechanic, so I just have to struggle to understand it myself. I’m no expert. I get information from experts, then I put it into the words that make sense to me. I’m writing for myself and for intelligent readers who don’t know the details but would like to know the details.
I have all these Boeing people or retired Boeing people who are subscribers, so if I get anything wrong, I’ll hear about it. It has to be technically accurate and it has to be understandable to readers who aren’t technical. It’s a balance.
How does covering aerospace change how you view traveling by plane?
Because I’m the aerospace reporter, I always know what kind of plane I’m traveling on and I know things about it. But as a traveler, I’m just like everybody else. I don’t particularly like traveling on airplanes in the U.S. It’s a chore. The whole thing is not pleasant. The lines and the waiting and the security: It’s all a pain. On the other hand, I like the experience of flying and looking out the window. I haven’t lost my sense of wonder at what these machines do.
My favorite thing, actually, is going to the factory. You walk in and see these giant machines being built partly by hand, partly with massive automated equipment, and it’s just completely awesome. I love the technology in the factory.
I think it’s the best business beat there is. It’s got all the aspects that make it easy to write about: It’s got these tangible products that everybody is familiar with; and I can gather information, official and unofficial, from a wide spectrum of employees.
NOTABLE STORIES BY DOMINIC GATES
Flawed analysis, failed oversight: How Boeing, FAA certified the suspect 737 MAX flight control system
Federal Aviation Administration managers pushed its engineers to delegate wide responsibility for assessing the safety of the 737 MAX to Boeing itself. But safety engineers familiar with the documents shared details that show the analysis included crucial flaws.
After the Lion Air 737 MAX crash, Boeing described an emergency procedure to use if its new flight-control system was inadvertently activated. But that procedure may have been inadequate to save the Ethiopian 737 MAX, not accounting for heavy loads on the tail that would have made it difficult to move manually.
Some current and former Boeing engineers who worked on behalf of the FAA say company managers pressured them to limit safety analysis and testing and analysis on planes, including the 737 MAX, in order to meet corporate cost and schedule goals.
On the 100th anniversary, company veterans from machinist to CEO talk about key moments in their time at Boeing.
Find previous Behind the Byline interviews on our Inside the Times page. Want to learn more about your favorite Seattle Times journalist? Send a message to assistant metro editor Gina Cole.
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