April 17, 2024

Boeing has 'a long way to go' to fix its safety culture

Source: Crain's Chicago Business


US lawmakers challenged Boeing Co. to expend the necessary time and effort to reset what they called a broken safety culture and criticized the planemaker’s relationship with regulators as overly cozy.

Boeing needs to be judged by what it does, not by what it says it’s doing, Senator Tammy Duckworth, an Illinois Democrat, said in her opening remarks at a Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday. At a second hearing, Senator Richard Blumenthal said Boeing had made a “bad investment” with what the Connecticut Democrat called a “focus on stock price, on quarterly profit, on money over safety.”

The Federal Aviation Administration, for its part, was criticized in both sessions, accused of being too soft on the company. Expert witnesses at the hearings said responsibility had increasingly been delegated from the regulator to Boeing, partly to improve efficiency, and partly because the FAA doesn’t have adequate resources.

The bipartisan pummeling underscores the work ahead for Boeing as it tries to rebuild its reputation battered by two fatal accidents in 2018 and 2019 and a near-catastrophic blowout of a fuselage panel on a 737 Max 9 during flight in early January. Lawmakers said they also want to grill Boeing executives, including departing Chief Executive Officer Dave Calhoun, and FAA officials in future hearings.

“Boeing is at a moment of reckoning, and it absolutely has an obligation to reform its safety culture and practices,” said Blumenthal, who chairs the subcommittee that held the second hearing, told reporters following the session. “This moment of reckoning is years in the making, and it will take persistent action — not just words and rhetoric — to protect the traveling public.”

The first session reviewed a February report by experts convened by the FAA, which faulted Boeing for an inconsistent safety message filtering down from management to the shop floor. The second panel focused on claims by a Boeing engineer turned whistleblower, who alleges the company cut corners in the production of its 787 airliner, placing profitability over safety.

As a result, the aircraft might show premature signs of fatigue because the company failed to properly close gaps in the fuselage sections when they are pieced together, he said, reiterating allegations first made public last week.

Threatened, Sidelined

In 10 pages of written testimony, Boeing engineer Sam Salehpour said he’s observed “a culture that prioritizes speed of production over safety and quality and incentivizes management to overlook significant defects in Boeing’s airplanes.”

“Despite what Boeing officials state publicly, there is no safety culture at Boeing and employees like me who speak up about defects with its production activities and lack of quality control are ignored, marginalized, threatened, sidelined, and worse,” he said in the written testimony.

Salehpour said that in June 2021, he invited about 30 Boeing employees to a meeting to discuss his concerns about excessive force compromising safety by deforming the fuselage barrels as they were fitted together. He said his direct manager forced him to have a shorter meeting with “only a few of my requested attendees.”

After he escalated his concerns, the responses from above became increasingly hostile, Salehpour said. Ultimately, he said he was transferred to the 777 program in retaliation for his whistleblower activity.

Boeing defended the safety and manufacturing of its marquee 787 Dreamliner, saying it had found no evidence of airframe fatigue after extensive testing of its carbon-fiber fuselage and heavy maintenance checks of nearly 700 of the jets already flying commercially.

“Under FAA oversight, we have painstakingly inspected and reworked airplanes and improved production quality to meet exacting standards that are measured in the one-hundreds of an inch,” the company said in a statement issued before the start of the hearings. “We are fully confident in the safety and durability of the 787 Dreamliner.”


Since a Boeing 737 Max 9 aircraft suffered the loss of the fuselage section in January, the FAA has tightened oversight of Boeing, forcing the company to slow down production and sending staff into their factories to review processes. The manufacturer has been given 90 days to come up with a comprehensive response and fix its production.

Senator Maria Cantwell, the Washington Democrat whose state is home to Boeing’s 737 Max factory and who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee that held the first Boeing hearing, said she expects the company to comply with that timeline.

Boeing executives weren’t present at either hearing, though the company has said it’s cooperating with  lawmaker inquiries The company’s absence was “frustrating,” said Senator Eric Schmitt, a Republican from Missouri.

Cantwell said she also wants to hear from the FAA and from Boeing later. Blumenthal said he equally expects Calhoun to appear “as part of our ongoing inquiry,” and that Wednesday’s hearing was the first of several.

“These whistleblowers had the guts to come forward and Dave Calhoun should as well,” Blumenthal said.

By:  Julie Johnsson, Allyson Versprille and Emily Birnbaum