Pressed during Senate hearing, Boeing CEO insists on renewed safety culture

Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun came to Capitol Hill on Tuesday, weathered harangues from U.S. senators and firmly insisted that the plane maker had learned hard lessons from its engineering and manufacturing mistakes that have transformed its safety culture.

The senators, who vehemently shared their views in front of television cameras, did not believe it.

Appearing before the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations chaired by Senator. Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, Calhoun kept his cool as senators blamed him personally for destroying Boeing’s reputation and got away with defending the company more than himself.

It was Calhoun’s first significant public appearance since the Alaska Airlines in-flight explosion in January sparked a wave of negative attention on Boeing.

Learn more about Alaska Airlines and the Boeing 737 MAX 9

In a change of tone from the appearance of Dennis Muilenburg, Calhoun’s predecessor as CEO, before Congress, Calhoun was personally contrasting and showed controlled emotion.

At the start of the hearing, he stood and turned away from the senators to face the public seats, where family members of those who died in the two MAX crashes in 2018 and 2019 had gathered.

Calhoun offered them a frank apology for the loss of their loved ones and assured that “in their memory,” Boeing would refocus on safety.

Sitting back down, Calhoun sighed deeply. Then, under questioning from senators, he stated unequivocally that a faulty flight control system on the MAX – the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS – was the primary cause of the crashes that killed 346 people.

“MCAS and Boeing are responsible for these accidents,” Calhoun said, a frank admission that Muilenburg never made.

Calhoun also apologized for the Alaska Airlines jet’s fuselage door plug bursting. He admitted that it was a manufacturing defect and that the opening and re-closing of the door stopper in Renton was not properly documented.

He added that Boeing’s insistence that all fuselages from supplier Spirit AeroSystems of Wichita, Kansas, be completed has slowed production but transformed quality control.

Boeing is in talks to buy Spirit, with the goal of better controlling assembly operations once they return in-house. This acquisition could be finalized in the coming weeks.

Calhoun said the Alaska blowout was the only in-flight incident this year that could be blamed on Boeing.

He said other incidents were due to airline operational or maintenance issues.

“Despite all the media coverage of the Boeing planes over the course of this year, I think this was the only manufacturing defect,” Calhoun said. “I don’t know of any others.”

Questions about a series of breaches

Unlike the U.S. House and Senate hearings that followed the two MAX crashes five years ago – hearings that released critical new details about what went wrong during the MAX’s development and had led to the crashes — Tuesday’s hearing generated little new information about what caused the crash. Boeing’s problems.

Allegations from a new whistleblower, Renton quality inspector Sam Mohawk, were briefly aired.

Blumenthal’s staff on the subcommittee, which is part of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, released a document Monday evening outlining Mohawk’s allegations.

Mohawk claims Boeing officials at the 737 assembly plant in Renton failed to properly control defective or poorly documented parts and hid it from federal aviation inspectors.

It alleges that certain non-compliant parts could be illegally installed on MAX aircraft.

Calhoun said Mohawk’s complaint was received in the company’s internal “Speak Up” safety reporting system and will be investigated.

Blumenthal said the committee has now received comments from “more than a dozen” Boeing whistleblowers. But the others mentioned Tuesday were not new.

Calhoun was bombarded with questions about the whistleblower accusations several years ago, before becoming CEO in 2020.

Blumenthal also asked Calhoun and Boeing chief engineer Howard McKenzie, who sat next to the CEO during the hearing, about a series of recent news stories involving problems at Boeing.

The Southwest plane that did a Dutch roll during a flight in May?

McKenzie said the National Transportation Safety Board is investigating, but early indications suggest something specific to this plane caused the incident.

“The data we have indicates that this aircraft suffered unique circumstances,” he said. “This gives us no reason to worry about the fleet.”

The report of loose fuselage fasteners at the 787 assembly plant in South Carolina?

The fasteners were not installed to specifications, McKenzie said, but initial assessments show the result is harmless and does not require rework.

“The torque is applied correctly. All the fixings are installed,” he said. “It’s good like this.”

What about the limitation of the 737 MAX engine anti-icing system?

Boeing is working on a redesign, but in the meantime any risk is “extremely low” and “we believe the fleet is safe,” McKenzie said.

The 787 fuselage deficiencies that Blumenthal highlighted at an April hearing when Boeing engineer and whistleblower Sam Salehpour tested and claimed the deficiencies threatened the structural integrity of the 787?

Calhoun noted that many 787s have undergone full maintenance overhauls after six or 12 years of service and have shown “a near-perfect record” of structural integrity.

Under the grill

Two senators in particular were out for blood Tuesday and reluctant to accept Calhoun’s answers.

Blumenthal repeatedly interrupted Calhoun’s responses and said the Justice Department should pursue the individuals at Boeing.

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., called Calhoun out for “naked mining” the company to provide cash to shareholders while “sticking it to your employees” and said it was “a parody” that Calhoun still has his job.

“You’re the problem,” Hawley said. “I hope you don’t destroy this company before it can be saved.”

Hawley seemed determined to present himself as a champion of American workers against a corporate elite focused on Wall Street.

But his attack on Calhoun’s priorities failed.

Hawley asked Calhoun about his multimillion-dollar salary and asked if the stock price had risen much since he became CEO, implying that this was his superstar.

“It’s not, and I don’t watch it much,” Calhoun responded. (That’s right. The stock price is almost half of what it was when he became CEO.)

What about profits? Hawley asked, implying that Calhoun was going out of his way to pursue profits.

“I didn’t make any profit,” Calhoun said. (That’s right. Boeing has lost money for five years in a row.)

Hawley persisted. “You take shortcuts. You’re taking away safety procedures,” he said. “You’re cutting jobs because you’re trying to get the most out of it. »

In response, Calhoun reviewed changes Boeing made to its engineering organization after the MAX crash.

Prodded by regulators and multiple investigations, it fixed flaws in MCAS and reformed its design practices to include more rigorous assessments of pilot reactions to emergencies in all future planes.

Then, after the Alaska incident in January, Boeing slowed its production system to a crawl and focused on training employees and adhering to manufacturing quality processes.

“I don’t think I’ve ever taken or we as a leadership team could have taken more dramatic steps than we took,” Calhoun said.

“I don’t recognize any of the Boeings you’re describing,” he told Hawley of his portrayal of the company. “I’m proud of every action we’ve taken.”

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