Senators grill Boeing CEO on whistleblower retaliation, ‘broken’ safety culture

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Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun faced bipartisan heat Tuesday as he sat for his first congressional testimony nearly six months after the door plug of a Boeing 737 Max 9 blew off during an Alaska Airlines flight in January.

Calhoun, who announced in March he was stepping down at the end of the year, sought to assure senators his company was serious about improving its safety and quality practices amid ongoing investigations by the Justice Department and federal regulators.

Two out of every three airplanes flying in the U.S. are Boeing airplanes, Calhoun pointed out, and the planemaker receives billions of dollars from the federal government each year, the lion’s share coming from the Defense Department.

“We’re here because we want Boeing to succeed. Boeing needs to succeed for the sake of the jobs it provides, for the sake of local economies it supports, for the sake of the American traveling public, for the sake of our military,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who chairs the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations that held the hearing.

But Blumenthal’s office released new whistleblower allegations Tuesday morning that the senator said raise concerns about Boeing’s commitment to actually making the promised changes.

Sam Mohawk, a Boeing quality assurance inspector, alleged the company improperly handled faulty parts, that those parts were likely installed on airplanes including the 737 Max, and that the company retaliated against him when he raised concerns.

“The 737 program was losing hundreds of non-conforming parts,” Mohawk said in a staff memo to members of the Senate subcommittee. Mohawk filed a complaint detailing the allegations with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration on June 11.

Additional whistleblowers appeared before the Senate subcommittee in April to detail allegations of safety concerns and a culture of silence and corner cutting at the organization.

Sam Salehpour, another Boeing quality engineer, alleged during that hearing the fuselage pieces of Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner were not being fused together properly, which could cause the plane to crack open in midair after an extended period of time.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), ranking member on the subcommittee, said he was “disappointed” that major airlines, Boeing’s customers, have declined to testify before the committee to explain their quality and maintenance systems to assure the American public.

Boeing delivered its plan to improve its safety culture and quality assurance and measure improvements to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) last month.

The plan included an additional 300 hours of training, quality inspections and approvals of 737 fuselages before they’re shipped to suppliers and more time for managers to be present on the factory floor.

When Sen. Laphonza Butler (D-Calif.) asked Calhoun how he planned to foster trust in Boeing’s leadership to cement those changes, Calhoun said the company celebrates “people who give us information that helps our operation” but had “a ways to go, and we have to keep working on that one.”

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) asked Calhoun exactly what he did to earn his $32.8 million annual salary, pointing out the executive’s compensation had skyrocketed 45 percent from 2022 to 2023.

When Hawley pressed Calhoun on why he had not resigned, the embattled CEO said, “I’m sticking this through.”

“I’m proud of every action we’ve taken,” Calhoun added.

“Wow. Well, there’s some news for you,” Hawley said following the heated exchange.

Blumenthal, a former prosecutor, also got “really angry” when Calhoun denied Boeing employees knew about issues with the flight stabilization Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System that led to high-profile, fatal Boeing 737 Max 8 crashes in 2018 and 2019.

“The evidence shows, in fact, that the engineers working on this plane knew that that faulty control system drove the nose down under certain circumstances,” Blumenthal said.

“Lion Air and Ethiopian Air struggled to lift that nose as the plane plummeted toward the sea, and they couldn’t do it because they didn’t know what was happening,” Blumenthal added, referencing the 2018 and 2019 crashes. “And the reason they didn’t know what was happening is because Boeing concealed it. They concealed it from the FAA.”

The Justice Department filed criminal charges against Boeing in 2021 for allegedly conspiring to defraud the U.S., but the prosecution was deferred after Boeing paid a $2.5 billion fine.

Calhoun apologized to the family members of victims who died in the 2018 and 2019 crashes at the top of the hearing.

“I want to personally apologize, on behalf of everyone at Boeing. We are deeply sorry for your losses. Nothing is more important than the safety of the people who step on board our airplanes. Every day, we seek to honor the memory of those lost through a steadfast commitment to safety and quality,” Calhoun said.

The Justice Department said last month that Boeing violated the deferred prosecution agreement “by failing to design, implement, and enforce a compliance and ethics program to prevent and detect violations of the U.S. fraud laws throughout its operations.”

The company pushed back, saying, “We believe that we have honored the terms of that agreement.” Federal prosecutors said they would let the court know how they want to proceed by July 7.

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