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Boeing CEO admits company has been ‘far from perfect’ after a flood of safety lapses

Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun plans to apologize for Boeing’s recent safety failures in Senate testimony Tuesday and admit to problems with the company culture, but he’ll push back on whistleblower 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.

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.

Boeing 737 Max airplanes are pictured outside a Boeing factory in Renton, Washington. - Stephen Brashear/Getty Images
Boeing 737 Max airplanes are pictured outside a Boeing factory in Renton, Washington. - Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

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.

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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 denies that is the case currently at Boeing in his prepared remarks.

“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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