Boeing CEO apologizes to families for plane safety failures

Boeing CEO David Calhoun apologized Tuesday to the families of those killed in the manufacturer’s plane crashes, while members of both parties on a U.S. Senate panel criticized the executive for failing to adhere to safety and transparency rules.

Calhoun appeared at a hearing of the Investigations Subcommittee of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee to discuss the recent Boeing plane crashes and the company’s treatment of whistleblowers.

Democrats and Republicans on the panel said Calhoun was more concerned about the company’s profits than its safety record.

“Boeing must stop thinking about the next earnings call and start thinking about the next generation,” subcommittee Chairman Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut, said in an opening statement.

Missouri Republican Sen. Josh Hawley was one of the sharpest questioners on Calhoun, starting with a question about the CEO’s salary, which is nearly $33 million a year.

“Mr. Calhoun, you don’t focus on safety,” Hawley said. “You don’t focus on quality. You don’t focus on transparency.

“I think what you’re really focusing on is what you’re hired to do, which is cutting corners,” Hawley continued. “You are eliminating security procedures. You stick it to your employees. You are reducing jobs because you want to squeeze as much profit as possible from this company. You mine it open-pit. You are involved in open-pit mining for one of the largest American companies in history.

Calhoun should resign, Hawley said.

Calhoun is leaving the company at the end of the year.

Apologies to the families

Shortly after Blumenthal introduced him, Calhoun stood up and turned to face the audience in the hearing room. Recipients included the families of passengers who died on Lion Air Flight 610 in Indonesia in October 2018 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 in March 2019.

Both disasters were caused by software problems with the then novel Boeing 737 MAX aircraft.

“I would like to apologize on behalf of all of our Boeing colleagues around the world, past and present, for your losses,” Calhoun told the families.

“They are gut-wrenching. And I’m sorry for the sadness we’ve caused. I want you to know that, in their memory, we remain fully committed to working and focusing on safety for as long as we are employed by Boeing.”

Calhoun, who took over as Boeing’s CEO in January 2020 after former CEO Dennis Muilenburg was fired in the wake of the two MAX crashes, has largely accepted responsibility on behalf of the company for those crashes and for the January 2024 episode in which he was on the plane A door fell off on an Alaska Airlines flight taking off from Portland, Oregon.

Calhoun said the aviation industry depends on accountability, transparency and continuous learning. The company must have an excellent track record and cannot allow a single defective plane to leave the factory, he said.

“Our job is perfection,” he said. “And it has to be absolute.”

Boeing is headquartered in Virginia but has manufacturing plants across the country, including in Washington state, where it was founded, and in Missouri and South Carolina.

Culture remains an issue

Calhoun was respectful throughout the hearing, largely accepting lawmakers’ criticism of his leadership and promising to do better.

However, several panel members said his words were not enough.

Four years after taking power, Calhoun has failed to fix a deteriorating safety culture, said Maggie Hassan, a New Hampshire Democrat.

“You talk about safety and culture, but you don’t answer the question of what the root causes are,” Hassan said. “How can you make sure that safety and quality are your product, not your words?”

While accepting responsibility for the Alaska Airlines incident, Calhoun responded that overall safety performance has been positive and that 2023 is the safest year on record for air travel.

Whistleblower retaliation

Also in the audience Tuesday were the mother and brother of John Barnett, a former Boeing engineer who was a safety whistleblower at the company and died by suicide earlier this year.

Blumenthal described the “tremendous pressure” Barnett was under as he helped with the Boeing investigation. According to Blumenthal, Barnett received 19 calls from his manager one day and 21 the next day threatening to “break” him.

Blumenthal said the committee heard from “a dozen” whistleblowers on Boeing staff. They routinely advised that reporting concerns internally could result in intimidation, Blumenthal said.

Blumenthal said the company is also not cooperating with the subcommittee.

In response to requests for information, Boeing sent pages of “complete gibberish” that were impossible to read, Blumenthal said.

“I would describe it exactly as you did, and I can’t justify it,” Calhoun said. “And I will definitely continue to do so.”

Ranking Republican Ron Johnson asked Calhoun whether he had investigated the company’s incentive structure in response to the whistleblower reports.

“It’s really shocking when a supervisor calls someone 19 times in one day and says, ‘I’m going to break you,’” the Wisconsin Republican said. – I’m guessing you don’t tolerate this kind of behavior. Have you checked your motivation system?”

Calhoun responded that the company has made “significant changes to our incentive structure that truly emphasizes safety.”

Johnson then asked whether the company’s focus on diversity, equity and inclusion programs represented a compromise on the quality of results.

“I’ve never seen those two things come into conflict,” Calhoun said.

Possible actions by the Department of Justice

Blumenthal said the U.S. Department of Justice is conducting its own investigation and may pursue criminal charges.

Blumenthal, a former federal prosecutor, said he believed there was enough evidence of a crime to pursue a criminal case.

Blumenthal, Johnson and other panel members said lawmakers and the traveling public wanted to see the aerospace giant succeed. Boeing produces most of the airlines that operate commercial services in the U.S. and also has significant military contracts.

But the company’s success “would require a course correction,” Blumenthal said.

He added that federal prosecution of those responsible for security breaches would be a good start.

“I’m telling you, and I’m telling the Department of Justice, that individuals should be held accountable because that’s the only way to have deterrence,” Blumenthal said. “Wouldn’t you agree?”

“Yes, sir,” Calhoun replied. “I strongly believe in responsibility.”

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