Boeing Battles Dual Congressional Hearings

Experts testified in one hearing about whether the company had improved safety and compliance procedures since two major crashes.

Photo of Boeing 787 Dreamliner plane
Photo by Eric Friedebach via CC BY 2.0

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Boeing is entering even unfriendlier airspace now. 

On Wednesday, the airplane manufacturer’s crisis took center stage in Washington in the form of two separate Senate hearings, with one featuring testimony from a new high-profile whistleblower. Neither meeting exactly inspired confidence in the embattled firm.

Mr. Whistleblower Goes to Washington

While Boeing has faced a plethora of terrible headlines ever since a door plug blew out on an Alaska Airlines flight in early January, the company’s woes predate that — including a pair of deadly crashes in 2018 and 2019 that resulted in 346 deaths. Experts testified in front of the Senate Commerce Committee to discuss a report, published in February, exploring whether the company had sufficiently improved its safety and compliance procedures since the twin crashes. The skinny: It did not.

“[Boeing employees] hear, ‘Safety is our No. 1 priority.’ What they see is that’s only true as long as your production milestones are met, and at that point, it’s ‘Push it out the door as fast as you can,’” MIT aeronautics lecturer Javier de Luis told the committee. De Luis’s sister was a victim in the 2019 737 MAX crash in Ethiopia. The witnesses also detailed a culture of fear and retribution for employees who spoke out against lax safety procedures.

And in another room in the Capitol, whistleblower and longtime Boeing quality engineer Sam Salehpour confirmed such allegations:

  • Ahead of his testimony, Salehpour raised massive red flags about “potentially catastrophic safety risks” involved in the production processes for the fuselage of Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner, and alleged that the company attempted to silence him and moved him to a different department in a possible act of retaliation.
  • Salehpour’s allegations have been supported by Roy Irvin, a former Boeing quality manager whose written testimony to Congress also said employees were discouraged from flagging safety problems in 787 Dreamliner production.

Of course, Wednesday’s testimony by both men mirrors those of previous whistleblower John Barnett, a longtime Boeing quality manager who was found dead in March of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound in Charleston, South Carolina, where he was giving a deposition in a lawsuit against the company. Irvin’s lawyer had also been representing Barnett.

United We Fall: Boeing’s woes do have one silver lining — for United Airlines at least. Boeing’s cascading crises pushed expectations so low for the airline, that it wowed Wall Street with its earnings report late Tuesday, boosting its shares by more than 17% on Wednesday. Boeing is the wind beneath United’s wings, except when it’s clipping those wings.