Death of Boeing whistleblower spells bad news for company

The death of a former Boeing employee who raised concerns about defects at a South Carolina factory has renewed attention on the airline's long history of facing allegations of quality control problems that have come to light from the company and regulators. In January, part of an Alaska Airlines flight fell off mid-flight.

Nearly a decade ago, the company entered into a wide-ranging settlement with the Federal Aviation Administration over hazardous waste such as metal shavings and tools left on Boeing jets. Fatal accidents in 2018 and 2019 have prompted other whistleblowers to come before Congress to allege that erratic production schedules pose safety and quality risks at Boeing plants.

The Jan. 5 Alaska Airlines incident, which investigators said was caused by improper installation of a door plug, prompted a Justice Department investigation and new concerns from the FAA. discovered during audit.

The Justice Department has opened a criminal investigation into the mid-air explosion of the 737 Max

Boeing faced a deep crisis after the crash that killed 346 people. But the barrage of bad news since then, heightened by the outbreak in January, has significantly tarnished the reputation of the airline — one of the world's two largest aircraft manufacturers and a key player in the US economy.

The fallout from the Alaska Airlines incident has stretched into a third month, with little expectation that the probe by regulators, security investigators and now federal prosecutors will soon end. The company's shares have fallen since January, weighing on the century-old company's finances.

“It took a long time to get to this low and it's going to take a long time to pull out,” said Nick Cunningham of the Department of Space and Defense. Analyst at London-based agency Partners. “It's not going to happen in a year.”

Asked for a statement on Tuesday, Boeing pointed to a recent email from Stan Diehl, president of Boeing's commercial aircraft division, who said in a message to company employees on Tuesday that progress was already being made. Boeing said in a statement early Tuesday that it was acting on the FAA's audit findings and developing a “comprehensive action plan to strengthen safety and quality and build the confidence of our customers and their passengers.”

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“We are fully focused on delivering significant, proven action with transparency at every turn,” the company said.

The FAA has not released the full results of the audit, but at a news conference Monday, FAA Administrator Michael Whittaker said the findings went beyond paperwork issues and how workers monitored their tools to make sure they didn't backfire.

The root cause of the problems on Boeing's production lines is unclear, but analysts and some former employees point to pressure to meet delivery schedules and, more recently, workforce turnover during the coronavirus pandemic.

For years, former company employees have come forward with concerns about what they consider working at Boeing's plants to be dull work. The Senate Commerce Committee documented many of those issues in a December 2021 report after the MAX outage based on accounts from seven whistleblowers. Whistleblowers include Ed Pearson, a former 737 factory manager who blamed an unusual number of quality control problems at a plant “under constant schedule pressure.”

“Together, these allegations illustrate the importance of a course correction that puts safety first and listens to the voices of line engineers,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), wrote in a letter to the FAA at the time. .

In the wake of the Alaska incident, even minor incidents involving Boeing aircraft have attracted increased attention. So was the death of ex-employee John Barnett, who was discovered March 9 with a self-inflicted gunshot wound, the Charleston County Coroner's Office said in a statement. The Charleston City Police Department is investigating.

“We are saddened by Mr. Barnett's passing and our thoughts are with his family and friends,” Boeing said in a statement.

At one point during a 2010 transfer from Washington to Boeing's 787 plant in South Carolina, Barnett, 62, filed a complaint with the FAA about metal shavings inside 787 jets cutting electrical wiring. In 2017, the company issued an order requiring those shavings to be removed before the jets were delivered to customers. The FAA said Tuesday that the agency could not provide additional details without a Freedom of Information Act request.

One of Barnett's lawyers, Robert M. Turkewitz, a former Boeing quality manager who joined the company in 1985, said he was “as decent a person as you can imagine.”

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“He had great integrity, he was honest and he was dedicated to making aviation safe,” said Durkwitz, who along with Brian Knowles has represented Barnett since 2017.

Barnett retired from Boeing that year — a decade earlier than he had planned — fearing he would be fired if he didn't quit.

After leaving the company, Barnett spoke out publicly, sharing her concerns with the New York Times and participating in a Netflix documentary about Max's accidents.

In the film, Barnett, dressed in a light blue shirt, described how proud he was to work for Boeing over the years, saying the company was like a family and cared for its employees. The company responded while using identified problems, Barnett said, but the culture began to change.

“So every time I raise my hand and say, hey, we've got a problem here, they attack the messenger,” he told the filmmakers.

'Safety is a given': Inside Boeing's boardroom amid 737 Max crisis

At the time of his death, Barnett had to complete the final day of depositions ahead of a June trial date in another whistleblower case filed against Boeing in 2017. In that complaint, Barnett alleged that the company punished him for raising concerns about manufacturing problems. Boeing denied retaliating against Barnett and sought to dismiss his claim. However, the 2022 order denied the company's motion.

His lawyers became concerned when he failed to appear at 10 a.m. Saturday, the final day of the case, and did not respond to calls to his cell phone or hotel room. Durkwitz said hotel staff checked his room, then the hotel parking lot, and found his distinctive orange pickup truck still parked there. Durkwitz's hotel manager told him that Barnett had been found and that EMS was on the way.

“We are shocked and devastated by what happened,” Durkwitz said. “As a lawyer, nothing prepares you for something like this.”

Keeping aircraft left without tools and parts is ongoing The release to the company, and was part of a 2015 settlement agreement between Boeing and the FAA. The company paid a $12 million fine and agreed to make significant changes to its internal security systems and procedures. The problem did not go away. In 2019, the Air Force suspended deliveries of the Boeing-made tanker due to concerns about debris. In 2020, while the Max fleet was still grounded after the crash, Boeing revealed that the fuel tanks of the undelivered jets contained debris.

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Two security issues disclosed in recent days may point to other problems at the company — though both are in the early stages of investigation.

Last week, the National Transportation Safety Board released a preliminary report on the incident in which a United Airlines 737 Max was caught by a rudder pedal. Boeing said the problem was resolved by replacing three parts and the aircraft was returned to service. The company said it was not aware of the problem in any other Max and had only seen two other cases on older-generation 737s that share the same pedal system.

On Monday, 50 people were injured when a 787 operated by Chilean airline LATAM crashed suddenly. The company called the incident a “technical incident,” but the cause remains under investigation.

Meanwhile, a judicial investigation could complicate the resolution of fraud charges against Boeing stemming from the accidents. Federal prosecutors are working with a grand jury to determine whether any issues related to the Alaska bombing violate a 2021 contract with Boeing. The agreement had a 3-year term, but prosecutors must review whether Boeing has fulfilled promises to strengthen its compliance programs to protect against fraud before dismissing the charges.

John C., professor of law and director of the Center for Corporate Governance at Columbia Law School. Coffey said the Justice Department faces a difficult dilemma when considering whether Boeing has met the terms of that 2021 deal. A criminal case could result in layoffs or other consequences for a company critical to the U.S. economy.

However, if Boeing is found not to meet the terms of the contract, the company should not be given another chance, Coffee said.

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