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Boeing CEO faces tough questions from Senate on safety problems

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A Senate committee report Tuesday said Boeing lost track of hundreds of substandard aircraft parts, eliminated quality inspectors and put manufacturing workers in charge of signing off on their own work, findings lawmakers said belied the company’s assurances that it prioritizes safety.

Senators released their highly negative portrayal — which was based on a raft of whistleblower complaints and previously undisclosed government findings — only hours before Boeing’s chief executive Dave Calhoun publicly sought to defend the company before the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.

It was Calhoun’s first appearance before Congress since the in-flight door panel blowout aboard a 737 Max jet in January, which did not substantially injure anyone but rattled faith in the aerospace giant’s manufacturing and brought new legal and political scrutiny.

As Tuesday’s hearing began, Calhoun turned and apologized to families of victims of two 737 Max crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia more than five years ago. The families sat behind him at the hearing and held up photographic portraits of some of the 346 people killed in those tragedies.

He said he is keenly aware of the outsize role Boeing plays in the aviation industry where two major players — Boeing and Airbus — dominate the commercial aviation market. He told the panel that two out of three planes operating in the United States are built by Boeing.

“Our airplanes have carried the equivalent of more than double the population of the planet,” he said. “Getting this right is critical for our company, for the customers who fly our planes every day, and for our country.”

But senators sharply criticized Boeing, and Calhoun’s leadership.

“The issues before us today have real human consequences, life and death results,” subcommittee chair Sen. Richard Blumenthal, (D-Conn.) said in his opening statement. “This hearing is a moment of reckoning. This is about a company once known as an iconic company that somehow lost its way.”

In a particular testy exchange, Sen. Josh Hawley, (R-Mo.), lambasted Calhoun for his record as Boeing’s chief executive, noting that he received a 45 percent pay increase that pushed his salary to almost $33 million for 2023. Calhoun defended his tenure saying he was “proud of every action we’ve taken.”

“I don’t think the problem is with the employees,” Hawley said moments later in response. “I think the problem is with you, the C suite. I just hope you don’t destroy this company before it can be saved.”

Behind the dramatic public proceedings, the committee staff detailed ways it said Boeing engaged in improper conduct and then retaliated against whistleblowers who raised questions about lapses in safe manufacturing procedures.

A new whistleblower, Sam Mohawk, told Senate investigators in May that he witnessed “systematic disregard” for documentation of rejected or out-of-compliance parts at Boeing’s Renton, Wash., aircraft manufacturing plant, the staff memorandum said.

Mohawk alleges that in June 2023, Boeing, alerted to an imminent inspection by the Federal Aviation Administration, moved parts that were being stored outside the plant “to intentionally hide improperly stored parts from the FAA,” according to the report. Mohawk, a Boeing quality assurance investigator, feared that nonconforming parts were being installed in planes, the report said.

Mohawk also alleges the company retaliated against him when he raised concerns. Boeing said it was reviewing the new allegations contained in the committee staff report. It said it encourages employees to report all concerns. But the committee said Mohawk’s account is part of a pattern at Boeing, which it said prioritizes speed and cost-cutting.

In April, the committee heard from whistleblowers, including one who said that portions of the company’s 787 Dreamliner wide-body jets were improperly fitted and joined together. Boeing pushed back against those allegations. The FAA also announced in May it is investigating reports that workers failed to do required inspections on 787 jets and might have submitted paperwork that said they did.

The latest Senate report detailed a program that Boeing initiated only months after the Lion Air crash in Indonesia in October 2018. The company significantly reduced the number of quality inspectors it employed, part of a years-long effort by the company, the report said.

The subcommittee’s report noted that the FAA in 2021 found that Boeing’s actions violated regulations, including by putting unqualified manufacturing workers in charge of inspecting their own work. The agency Tuesday said the company began correcting the inspection deficiencies and certified that Boeing resolved them last year.

“Documents and accounts provided by whistleblowers familiar with Boeing’s production at facilities in Washington state and Charleston, South Carolina, paint a troubling picture of a company that prioritizes speed of manufacturing and cutting costs over ensuring the quality and safety of aircraft,” investigators wrote. “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.”

Boeing has been beset by production issues, last week ordering additional inspections on some 787 jets because fasteners used to secure portions of the fuselage may have been torqued on the wrong side.

Calhoun took over as Boeing’s chief executive in January 2020, vowing greater transparency and a new focus on safety at the company. Facing the Senate panel on Tuesday, he sought to convince lawmakers the company is committed to changing its culture to focus on safety rather than profits.

But several expressed skepticism, pressing Calhoun on his claims that whistleblowers do not face retaliation. They also questioned how forthcoming the company had been with requests for information. At one point, Blumenthal held up two sheets of paper filled with what he called “gobbledygook.” Calhoun agreed.

Calhoun’s appearance Tuesday was another step in a season of negative developments for the company.

A National Transportation Safety Board investigation into the Jan. 5 door panel blowout is ongoing. Investigators have scheduled two days of hearings into the accident for August. A preliminary report released by investigators this year found that bolts used to secure the door panel were missing. At a hearing, NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy said that efforts to track who was responsible for ensuring those bolts were reinstalled after the door panel was removed from the jet have been stymied because Boeing said there are no records of the work.

Boeing is awaiting an imminent decision from the Justice Department in a long-standing case tied to the crashes of Lion Air in 2018 and Ethiopian Airlines in 2019.

In 2021, Boeing reached an agreement with the Justice Department that enabled it to avoid criminal prosecution in exchange for admitting that two of its technical pilots deceived federal safety regulators about a software system blamed for the accidents. It paid $2.5 billion in penalties, $500 million of which was set aside for families of those who died.

The company also agreed to strengthen internal programs to prevent fraud and encourage compliance with federal regulations. However, prosecutors announced in May that Boeing had not met the conditions of the deal, raising the possibility the company could be prosecuted for fraud. Boeing maintains it met the requirements outlined in the agreement. A decision is expected by July 7.

Calhoun probably will play only a temporary role in implementing the plan, given that his tenure at Boeing is winding down. In March, he announced he would step down at the end of the year, part of a leadership shake-up that also involved the departure of Stan Deal, head of Boeing’s commercial aircraft division, who had worked at the company for almost four decades.

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