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Boeing chief executive faces Senate hearing amid investigations

3 weeks ago 38

David Calhoun, the chief executive of Boeing, is scheduled to testify before Congress on Tuesday as lawmakers continue their investigation of quality oversight and production failures at one of America’s most storied companies.

The aircraft manufacturer is the subject of multiple investigations and whistleblower complaints. Much of the bad news relates to the midair blowout of a door panel during an Alaska Airlines flight in January — an incident that did not seriously harm any passengers but renewed questions about the company’s commitment to safety more than five years after the crashes of two 737 Max 8 jets, one in Indonesia and one in Ethiopia, killed 346 people.

The Justice Department has launched a criminal investigation into the door panel blowout. Meanwhile, the company also is awaiting word on whether it will be criminally prosecuted for fraud in a case stemming from a 2021 deal that would have allowed it to avoid criminal prosecution in connection with the 737 Max crashes. Last month, the Justice Department announced that Boeing has failed to meet the terms of the agreement. Boeing maintains it has adhered to them. A decision on whether to proceed with a prosecution is expected by early July.

In prepared testimony for the hearing before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, chaired by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Calhoun apologized to the families who lost loved ones in the 737 Max crashes. He outlined steps the company has taken to prevent a repeat of the Alaska Airlines incident and restore trust in the Boeing brand.

“Our culture is far from perfect, but we are taking action and making progress,” Calhoun said in his prepared remarks. “We understand the gravity, and we are committed to moving forward with transparency and accountability, while elevating employee engagement.”

In April, the same panel heard from whistleblowers who testified about alleged quality lapses at the company and said they had been retaliated against for speaking out.

“I look forward to Mr. Calhoun’s testimony, which is a necessary step in meaningfully addressing Boeing’s failures, regaining public trust, and restoring the company’s central role in the American economy and national defense,” Blumenthal said in a statement announcing Calhoun’s appearance.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) announced a new inquiry of his own last week, seeking information into the failures that led to the Jan. 5 door panel blowout.

“While the worst was avoided, this is yet another example of a safety failure at Boeing,” Grassley wrote in a 12-page letter sent on Wednesday to Boeing. “Boeing must explain how this happened and what is being done to ensure that it does not place the lives of Americans at risk again.”

Calhoun took over as chief executive in January 2020, pledging greater transparency at the company. But critics allege little has changed. A report by an independent panel of experts convened by the Federal Aviation Administration and released in February found gaps in the company’s safety culture. It said that employees still feared retaliation and that even if they did raise concerns, they were unsure of where to take those concerns.

A whistleblower who testified before the Senate committee in April detailed alleged retaliation he faced after raising concerns about whether sections of the 787 Dreamliner jets’ fuselages were property fitted and joined. Boeing denied the claims.

Last month, Boeing submitted its plan to address quality shortfalls identified during a six-week FAA audit of its operations.

In his written testimony, Calhoun said he is well aware of the responsibilities that come with the outsize role his company plays in the global aviation industry.

“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.”

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 saw the departure of Stan Deal, head of Boeing’s commercial aircraft division, who had worked at the company for nearly four decades.

Richard Aboulafia, a managing director with AeroDynamics, an aerospace consulting firm, said it may take years to change Boeing’s culture. The board’s selection of a new chief executive will speak volumes about the company’s future, he said.

Even as regulators, lawmakers and the industry have continued to assure the American public that commercial air travel is the safest form of transportation, details of manufacturing problems continue to emerge. Adding to the industry’s woes, the FAA and its E.U. counterpart last week announced they are investigating how that titanium with falsified documentation was used to build parts on some Boeing and Airbus passenger planes.

Also last week, Boeing said it would perform additional inspections of 787 aircraft after discovering some of the fasteners used to join sections of the fuselages may have been incorrectly installed. The problem affected only jets that had not been delivered, the company said.

Lawmakers also are looking to the FAA to keep Boeing on track. Many are concerned that despite strengthening FAA’s oversight of Boeing and other manufacturers after the 737 crashes, it wasn’t enough to prevent the Alaska Airlines accident.

In testimony before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee last week, FAA Administrator Michael Whitaker acknowledged that the agency’s oversight has been “too hands-off” and depended too heavily on audits. Whitaker said that, as part of a new approach, the agency has increased the number of inspectors inside Boeing factories and at key suppliers including Spirit AeroSystems, which builds fuselages for Boeing jets.

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