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Boeing CEO locks horns with senators and apologises to crash victim relatives

Boeing CEO David Calhoun testifies at a Senate Homeland Security Subcommittee on Investigations at the Capitol Hill Tuesday, June 18, 2024, in Washington.
Boeing CEO David Calhoun testifies at a Senate Homeland Security Subcommittee on Investigations at the Capitol Hill Tuesday, June 18, 2024, in Washington. Copyright Mariam Zuhaib/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved.
Copyright Mariam Zuhaib/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved.
By AP
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US senators attacked the airline CEO over safety shortcomings as more whistleblower allegations come to light.

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Boeing boss David Calhoun defended the airline's safety record during a contentious Senate hearing in Washington on Tuesday, as politicians accused him of placing profits over safety, failing to protect whistleblowers, and even getting paid too much.

Relatives of people who died in two crashes of Boeing 737 Max jetliners were in the room, some holding photos of their loved ones.

Calhoun began his remarks by standing, turning to face the families, and apologising "for the grief that we have caused," and vowing to focus on safety.

Calhoun's appearance was the first before Congress by any high-ranking Boeing official since a panel blew out of a 737 Max during an Alaska Airlines flight in January.

No one was seriously injured in the incident, but it raised fresh concerns about the company's best-selling commercial aircraft.

A few hours ahead of the hearing before the Senate investigations subcommittee, the panel released a 204-page report.

This included new allegations from a whistleblower who expressed concerns that defective parts could be going into 737s.

The whistleblower is the latest in a string of current and former Boeing employees to raise concerns about the company's manufacturing processes, which federal officials are investigating.

"This hearing is a moment of reckoning," subcommittee chairman Richard Blumenthal said. "It's about a company, a once iconic company, that somehow lost its way."

Senator Josh Hawley put the blame squarely on Calhoun, saying that the man who became CEO in January 2020 had been too focused on the bottom line.

"You are cutting corners, you are eliminating safety procedures, you are sticking it to your employees, you are cutting back jobs because you are trying to squeeze every piece of profit you can out of this company," Hawley said.

Hawley repeatedly mentioned Calhoun's remuneration for last year, valued at $32.8 million (€30.6 million), and asked the CEO why he hasn't resigned.

"Senator, I'm sticking this through. I'm proud of having taken this job. I'm proud of our safety record, and I'm proud of our Boeing people," replied Calhoun, who has announced that he will step down by the end of the year.

"I am proud of every action we have taken," Calhoun reiterated.

Senators pressed Calhoun about accusations that Boeing managers retaliated against employees who reported safety concerns. They asked the CEO if he had ever spoken with any whistleblowers. He replied that he had not, but agreed it would be useful.

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The latest whistleblower, Sam Mohawk, a quality assurance investigator at Boeing's 737 assembly plant near Seattle, told the subcommittee that "nonconforming" parts — ones that could be defective or aren't properly documented — could be winding up in 737 Max jets.

Crash victims' families attend a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Investigations hearing on Capitol Hill. June 18, 2024. Washington.
Crash victims' families attend a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Investigations hearing on Capitol Hill. June 18, 2024. Washington.Manuel Balce Ceneta/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved.

Potentially more troubling for the company, Mohawk accused Boeing of hiding evidence after the Federal Aviation Administration told the company it planned to inspect the plant in June 2023.

"Once Boeing received such a notice, it ordered the majority of the (nonconforming) parts that were being stored outside to be moved to another location," Mohawk said, according to the report. "Approximately 80% of the parts were moved to avoid the watchful eyes of the FAA inspectors."

The parts were later moved back or lost, Mohawk said. 

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A Boeing spokesperson said the company got the subcommittee report late Monday night and was reviewing the claims. The FAA also said it would "thoroughly investigate" the allegations.

The 737 Max has a troubled history. After Max jets crashed in 2018 in Indonesia and 2019 in Ethiopia, killing 346 people, the FAA and other regulators grounded the aircraft worldwide for more than 18 months.

The US Justice Department is considering whether to prosecute Boeing for violating the terms of a settlement it reached with the company in 2021 over allegations that it misled regulators who approved the plane.

Mohawk told the Senate subcommittee that the number of unacceptable parts has exploded since production of the Max resumed following the crashes.

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He said the increase led supervisors to tell him and other workers to "cancel" records that indicated the parts were not suitable to be installed on planes.

The FAA briefly grounded some Max planes again after January's mid-air blowout of a plug covering an emergency exit on the Alaska Airlines plane.

The agency and the National Transportation Safety Board opened separate investigations of Boeing that are continuing.

Calhoun said Boeing had responded to the Alaska accident by slowing production, encouraging employees to report safety concerns, stopping assembly lines for a day to let workers talk about safety, and appointing a retired Navy admiral to lead a quality review.

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Subcommittee chairman Blumenthal first asked Calhoun to appear before the Senate subcommittee after another whistleblower, a Boeing quality engineer, claimed that manufacturing mistakes were raising safety risks on two of the biggest Boeing planes, the 787 Dreamliner and the 777.

He said the company needed to explain why the public should be confident about Boeing's work, although the airline pushed back against the whistleblower's claims.

The Justice Department decided last month that Boeing had violated a 2021 settlement that shielded the company from prosecution for fraud for allegedly misleading regulators who approved the 737 Max.

A top department official said Boeing failed to make changes to detect and prevent future violations of anti-fraud laws.

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Prosecutors have until 7 July to decide what to do next. Blumenthal said there is "mounting evidence" that the company should be prosecuted.

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