14 July, 2024
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Boeing hid questionable parts from regulators that may have been installed in 737 Max planes, new whistleblower alleges


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Washington CNN  —  A current Boeing employee claims that the company tried to shield broken or out-of-specification parts from regulators and probably installed them in 737 Max planes, according to a Senate subcommittee investigation made public Tuesday.

Boeing tried to hide the nonconforming parts from Federal Aviation Administration regulators by moving them out of sight and falsifying records, claims Sam Mohawk, the new whistleblower who works for Boeing quality assurance unit in Renton, Washington.

Boeing said it received the report from Congressional investigators Monday evening.

“We are reviewing the claims,” said the company’s statement. “We continuously encourage employees to report all concerns as our priority is to ensure the safety of our airplanes and the flying public.”

Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun will be confronted with the new claims in addition to other whistleblower charges about Boeing’s safety lapses at his first-ever congressional hearing Tuesday. The outgoing Boeing CEO plans to apologize for Boeing’s recent safety failures in his testimony.

According to his prepared testimony shared with CNN, Calhoun will admit to problems with the company’s culture, but he’ll push back on claims that the company retaliated against those who brought safety issues to light.

“Much has been said about Boeing’s culture. We’ve heard those concerns loud and clear,” he will say in prepared remarks released by Boeing Monday afternoon. “Our culture is far from perfect, but we are taking action and making progress. We understand the gravity, and we are committed to moving forward.”

The “far from perfect” remark is a massive understatement. Boeing has been under intense scrutiny with numerous federal investigations and congressional hearings since a January 5 Alaska Air Boeing 737 Max flight had a door plug blow off, leaving a gaping hole in both the plane and Boeing’s reputation.

Beyond the bad publicity of the Senate hearing, Boeing has been ordered by the Federal Aviation Administration to improve its safety issues before it can resume normal production, causing problems for airlines that can’t get the planes they ordered. And that, in turn, has meant higher fares for passengers, who have had their faith the company’s planes sorely tested.

Prioritizing profits over safety

In prepared remarks released early Tuesday from Sen. Richard Blumenthal, the Connecticut Democrat who chairs the committee, the senator accuses Calhoun of putting profits of airplane safety, of leading a company where those raising safety concerns regularly faced retaliation, despite the claims otherwise from management.

“This is a culture that continues to prioritize profits, push limits, and disregard its workers,” said the prepared opening remarks released by Blumenthal. “A culture where those who speak up are silenced and sidelined while blame is pushed down to the factory floor. A culture that enables retaliation against those who do not submit to the bottom line. A culture that desperately needs to be repaired.”

Blumenthal said he and others had hoped that Calhoun would change the culture and practices at Boeing for the better when he was took over as CEO in January 2020, 10 months into a 20-month grounding of the 737 Max that followed two fatal crashes.

“But then, this past January, the façade quite literally blew off the hollow shell that had been Boeing’s promises to the world,” Blumenthal will say, according to his prepared testimony, a reference to the door plug blowout. “And once that chasm was exposed, we learned that there was virtually no bottom to the void that lay below.”

An extensive research document prepared by committee aides show the panel is armed with whistleblower accounts from inside Boeing. Some of the whistleblowers in the document have shared their accounts publicly or with CNN.

Among them is Mohawk’s claim that in June 2023, when the FAA notified Boeing that it would inspect its Renton plant, the company told employees to move the majority of the 60 nonconforming parts to another location to hide them from inspectors. Many of them were moved back, but some were lost, Mohawk alleges.

He also claims Boeing in August 2023 told employees to delete records about nonconforming parts, which led him to complain – but Boeing took no action.

Aides wrote in a memo that the whistleblowers “paint a troubling picture of a company that prioritizes speed of manufacturing and cutting costs over ensuring the quality and safety of aircraft.”

“These misplaced priorities appear to contribute to a safety culture that insufficiently values and addresses the root causes of employee concerns and insufficiently deters retaliation against employees that speak up,” the memo reads.

The hearing Tuesday by the Senate’s permanent subcommittee on investigations is entitled “Boeing’s broken safety culture.” It is just the latest congressional hearing this year about safety issues at Boeing but the first time Calhoun is testifying in his more than four years running the troubled company. He will be joined by Howard McKenzie, Boeing’s chief engineer.

The Boeing 737 Max assembly line in a 2021 file photo.

At an April 17 hearing Boeing engineer Sam Salehpour testified that Boeing is putting out defective planes because he and others who complain faced pressure not to do so.

“I have serious concerns about the safety of the 787 and 777 aircraft, and I’m willing to take on professional risk to talk about them,” Salehpour said in his opening statement. He said when he raised concerns, “I was ignored. I was told not to create delays. I was told, frankly, to shut up.”

Calhoun’s prepared remarks deny the claims of the whistleblowers and Blumenthal about retaliation against those who raise safety concerns.

“We are committed to making sure every employee feels empowered to speak up if there is a problem,” he’ll say, according to the prepared remarks. “We also have strict policies in place to prohibit retaliation against employees who come forward. It is our job to listen, regardless of how we obtain feedback, and handle it with the seriousness it deserves.”

Will there be changes?

Despite the attention the hearing is expected to garner, it’s unlikely to produce significant change at the company, said Richard Aboulafia, managing partner for AeroDynamic Consultancy, an aerospace advisory firm.

“Nothing has produced change (at Boeing) except frustration from a bunch of airline customers,” said Aboulafia. “I’m not sure what will change as a consequence of this. He (Calhoun) needs to go. He has shown a strong desire to double down on what’s bad.”

A preliminary investigation of the Alaska Air incident has found that the plane left a Boeing factory two months before the incident without the four bolts needed to hold the door plug in place.

And Boeing has yet to produce the paperwork to identify who in the factory installed the door plug without the bolts. It has been harshly criticized by members of Congress and safety regulators and will likely face more criticism Tuesday.

Calhoun has already met with members of Congress since the Alaska Air incident, albeit behind closed doors. He has also made numerous public statements to Boeing employees and to investors since the Alaska Air incident.

“We caused the problem, and we understand that,” he told investors in January during a call after reporting its fifth straight annual loss. “Whatever conclusions (from the investigations) are reached, Boeing is accountable for what happened. Whatever the specific cause of the accident might turn out to be, an event like this simply must not happen on an airplane that leaves one of our factories. We simply must be better.”

Apologies to families, passengers

Calhoun’s prepared remarks begin with an apology to the family members of the victims of two fatal 737 Max crashes. Some of those family members plan to attend the hearing. Between them, 346 people were killed in the 2018 and 2019 crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia, leading to to a 20-month grounding of the jet to fix a design flaw that caused the crashes.

“We are deeply sorry for your losses,” he’ll say in his opening comments. “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.”

He also plans to again apologize to the passengers and crew of the Alaska Air flight in January.

“We deeply regret the impact that the Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 accident had on Alaska Airlines’ team and its passengers, and we are grateful to the pilots and crew for safely landing the plane,” he’ll say. “We are thankful that there were no fatalities.”

But experts say that it was sheer luck that no one was killed in the Alaska Air incident.

This could very well be Calhoun’s only time testifying on Capitol Hill. He has announced plans to retire before the end of this year. His successor has yet to be selected.

Beyond Tuesday’s hearing, and the numerous federal investigations it faces, the company could still face criminal liability from the original certification process of the 737 Max. In January of 2021 Boeing agreed to a probationary period, which deferred any prosecution on those charges and which would have exempted it from criminal liability in the crashes.

But the January 5 incident aboard the Alaska Air flight happened just days before the end of the probationary period. In May the Justice Department notified Boeing that it was now subject to criminal prosecution. Boeing has denied the Alaska Air incident violated the deferred prosecution agreement and is challenging any potential criminal liability in court. The family members planning to attend Tuesday’s hearing say they want to see Boeing prosecuted criminally.

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