Whistleblower death compounds bad news for Boeing

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The death of a former Boeing employee who had raised concerns about lapses at a South Carolina factory has renewed attention on the aerospace giant’s long history of facing allegations, from inside the company and from regulators, of the kinds of quality control issues that came to light after a piece of an Alaska Airlines jet fell off midflight in January.

Almost a decade ago, the company entered into a wide-ranging settlement with the Federal Aviation Administration in part over potentially dangerous debris left on Boeing jets, such as metal shavings and tools. Fatal crashes in 2018 and 2019 triggered other whistleblowers to come forward to Congress to allege that relentless production schedules were causing safety and quality risks at Boeing plants.

And the Jan. 5 Alaska Airlines incident, which investigators said was caused by the faulty installation of a door plug, has prompted a Justice Department investigation as well as fresh concerns from the FAA, which gave the company 90 days to fix numerous quality control issues discovered during an audit.

Justice Dept. opens criminal probe of mid-flight blowout on 737 Max plane

Boeing weathered a deep crisis after the crashes, which killed 346 people. But the drumbeat of bad news since then, which spiked with the January blowout, has significantly undermined the reputation of the aviation giant — one of only two major manufacturers of airliners in the world and a vital player in the U.S. economy.

The fallout from the Alaska Airlines incident is now stretching into a third month with little prospect that the scrutiny from regulators, safety investigators and now federal prosecutors will let up soon. The company’s stock has sagged since January, weighing on the finances of the century-old company.

“It has taken a long time to get this low, it will take a long time to haul out,” said Nick Cunningham, an aerospace and defense analyst at the London-based Agency Partners. “It’s not going to happen in a year.”

Asked for a statement Tuesday, Boeing pointed to a recent email from Stan Deal, the head of Boeing’s commercial aircraft division, who said in a message to the company’s workforce Tuesday that progress was already being made. Boeing said in an early Tuesday statement that it was taking action based on the FAA’s audit findings and putting together “a comprehensive action plan to strengthen safety and quality, and build the confidence of our customers and their passengers.

“We are squarely focused on taking significant, demonstrated action with transparency at every turn,” the company said.

The FAA has not released the full results of the audit, but at a news conference Monday, FAA administrator Michael Whitaker said the findings went beyond paperwork issues, and included how workers tracked their tools to be sure they hadn’t left any behind.

The underlying cause of problems on Boeing’s production lines are not clear, but analysts and some former employees point to pressure to meet delivery schedules and, more recently, workforce turnover during the coronavirus pandemic.

Over the years, former company employees have come forward with concerns about what they viewed as sloppy work at Boeing’s plants. The Senate Commerce Committee documented many of those issues in a December 2021 report after the Max crashes that was based on the accounts of seven whistleblowers. The whistleblowers included Ed Pierson, a former manager at the 737 factory, who alleged an unusual number of quality control problems at a plant under “relentless schedule pressure.”

“Together, these allegations illustrate the importance of a course correction that puts safety first and listens to the voices of line engineers,” Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), the committee’s chairwoman, wrote in a letter the FAA at the time.

In the wake of the Alaska incident, even minor incidents involving Boeing planes have drawn outsize attention. So, too, did the death of John Barnett, the former employee who was discovered March 9 with what appeared to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound, the Charleston County coroner’s office said in a statement. The Charleston City Police Department is investigating.

“We are saddened by Mr. Barnett’s passing, and our thoughts are with his family and friends,” Boeing said in a statement.

At some point after transferring from Washington to Boeing’s 787 plant in South Carolina in 2010, Barnett, 62, filed a complaint with the FAA about metal shavings being left inside 787 jets during manufacturing, where they could sever electrical wiring. In 2017, the agency issued a directive requiring that those shavings be cleared out before the jets could be delivered to customers. The FAA said Tuesday the agency could not provide additional details without a Freedom of Information Act request.

Robert M. Turkewitz, one of Barnett’s lawyers, said the former Boeing quality manager, who joined the company in 1985, was “as decent a person as you could imagine.”

“He had high integrity, he was honest and he was as dedicated to making air travel safe,” said Turkewitz, who along with Brian Knowles, has represented Barnett since 2017.

Barnett retired from Boeing that year — a decade earlier than he had planned — fearing that if he didn’t leave, he’d be fired.

After leaving the company, Barnett also spoke out in public, sharing his concerns with the New York Times and taking part in a Netflix documentary on the Max crashes.

In the film, Barnett, wearing a light blue shirt, described how for years he felt proud to work at Boeing, saying the company was like a family and looked out for its employees. The company was responsive when employs identified problems, Barnett said, but the culture began to shift.

“So every time I’d raise my hand and say, hey, we got a problem here, they would attack the messenger,” he told the filmmakers.

‘Safety was just a given’: Inside Boeing’s boardroom amid the 737 Max crisis

At the time of his death, Barnett was due to wrap up the final day of depositions ahead of a June trial date in another whistleblower case he filed against Boeing in 2017. In that complaint, Barnett alleged that the company punished him for raising concerns about production issues. Boeing denied that it retaliated against Barnett and sought to dismiss his claim. A 2022 order, however, denied the company’s motion.

When he failed to show up Saturday at 10 a.m. for the final day of depositions in the case and didn’t answer his cellphone or calls to his hotel room, his attorneys grew concerned. Turkewitz said hotel employees checked his room and then the hotel parking, finding his distinctive orange pickup truck was still parked there. Turkewitz said the hotel manager told him Barnett had been located and that EMS was on its way.

“We are shocked and devastated by what happened,” Turkewitz said. “As a lawyer, nothing prepares you for something like this.”

Keeping planes free of left-behind tools and parts has been an ongoing issue for the company, and was part of the reason for a 2015 settlement agreement between Boeing and the FAA. It involved the company paying $12 million penalty, and agreeing to make significant changes in its internal safety systems and practices. The problem was not eliminated. In 2019, the Air Force paused deliveries of a Boeing-made tanker over concerns about debris. In 2020, with the Max fleet still grounded after the crashes, Boeing disclosed that debris had been in the fuel tanks of undelivered jets.

Two safety issues disclosed in recent days could point to other problems at the company — although both are in the early phases of being investigated.

Last week, the National Transportation Safety Board issued a preliminary report into an incident in which a United Airlines 737 Max experienced a stuck rudder pedal. Boeing said the problem was addressed by replacing three parts and that the plane was put back into service. The company said it was not aware of the issue occurring on any other Max, and had seen only two other instances on an older generation of 737s that shares the same pedal system.

And on Monday, 50 people were injured when a 787 operated by Chilean airline LATAM went into a sudden drop. The company attributed the incident to a “technical event” but the cause remains under investigation.

The Justice Department probe, meanwhile, could complicate the resolution to a fraud charge against Boeing stemming from the crashes. Federal prosecutors are working with a grand jury to determine whether any of the issues connected to the Alaska blowout violate a deal authorities struck with Boeing in 2021 to allow the company to avoid charges. The deal had a 3-year term, but prosecutors must review whether Boeing fulfilled promises it made to strengthen its compliance programs to guard against fraud before dismissing the charges.

John C. Coffee, a professor of law and director of the Center on Corporate Governance at Columbia Law School, said the Justice Department faces a tough dilemma as it considers whether Boeing has met the terms of that 2021 agreement. A criminal prosecution could lead to layoffs or other repercussions for a company critical to the U.S. economy.

However, if Boeing is found not to have met the terms of the agreement, the company should not be given another chance, Coffee said.

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