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Whistleblowers, an executive shakeup, and the future of Boeing

The fuselage and one of the engines of a Boeing 777-9 jetliner aircraft. (Giuseppe Cacace/AFP via Getty Images)
The fuselage and one of the engines of a Boeing 777-9 jetliner aircraft. (Giuseppe Cacace/AFP via Getty Images)

Boeing whistleblower John Barnett was found dead last month, in an apparent suicide.

He’d spent the last 7 years speaking out about Boeing’s declining safety and quality.

Today, On Point: Whistleblowers, an executive shakeup, and the future of Boeing.


Rob Turkewitz, lawyer and co-counsel for Boeing whistleblower John Barnett.

Andy Pasztor, covered aviation safety for the Wall Street Journal from the 1980s to 2021. He’s now writing a book on airline safety.


Part I

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: John Barnett spent more than 30 years working for Boeing. First in the company’s Everett, Washington plant, and then at Boeing’s facility in Charleston, South Carolina. Barnett was a quality manager. His job was to inspect newly built planes, make sure they were assembled properly.

Early in January, this year, when that door plug ripped off midair from an Alaska Airlines flight, that Boeing 737 MAX, Barnett spoke with TMZ just days after the incident.

JOHN BARNETT: One, this is not a 737 problem. It’s a Boeing problem. So what we’re seeing with the door plug blowout is what I’ve seen with the rest of the airplane as far as jobs not being completed properly, inspection steps being removed. Issues being ignored.

CHAKRABARTI: Barnett said for most of his career he used to love working for Boeing. That changed when he moved to the Charleston plant. He said he saw a disturbing lack of safety, a culture of cutting corners. He spoke to the New York Times in 2019.

BARNETT: As a quality manager at Boeing, you’re the last line of defense before a defect makes it out to the flying public.

As a quality manager, being the last line of defense, that’s a huge responsibility. Everything I put my name on, I’m certifying that it meets the requirements, the regulatory requirements, is in safe, airworthy, condition.

And I haven’t seen a plane out of Charleston yet that I’d put my name on, just saying it’s safe and airworthy.

CHAKRABARTI: In 2019, Barnett decided to blow the whistle on Boeing. He claimed that Boeing then retaliated against him. On March 9th, just last month, in the middle of several days of giving deposition in his retaliation case, John Barnett was found dead in his truck, a single gunshot wound to the head.

There was a handgun and a, quote, “white piece of paper that closely resembled a note,” according to Charleston police. A coroner’s report ruled that Barnett died from a, quote, “self-inflicted wound.” The case is still under investigation. John Barnett said he wasn’t just blowing the whistle. He wanted to change the culture at Boeing, a company he once deeply loved.

A couple of weeks ago, Boeing announced a massive leadership shakeup. On March 25th, Stan Deal, head of Boeing’s Commercial Aviation Unit, stepped down effective immediately. Board Chair Larry Kellner said he won’t run for reelection at the end of this year. And CEO Dave Calhoun announced he will also leave the company at the end of 2024.

So today, we’re going to explore two things. What did John Barnett see at the Charleston plant that worried him so deeply? And is the culture change he sought perhaps beginning now at Boeing? So we’ll start with Rob Turkewitz. He’s one of John Barnett’s lawyers and is representing Barnett’s retaliation case.

And he joins us from Charleston, South Carolina. Rob Turkewitz, welcome to you.

ROB TURKEWITZ: Good to be here, Meghna. Thank you.

CHAKRABARTI: I am, first of all, very sorry for the death of your client, John Barnett, and I appreciate you joining us even under these horrible circumstances. Mr. Turkewitz, could you tell us about what happened on the day of John’s death?

TURKEWITZ: Sure. John had filed a complaint under a statute known as AIR21, which basically makes retaliating against a aviation employee illegal. And the case was being investigated for four years, up to four years, by OSHA. And then we appealed to a judge, to the administrative law judge, with the Department of labor.

And as you can imagine, this thing was taking, we’re on seven years and we finally had a trial date in late June. And Boeing was taking John’s deposition and they deposed him all day on Thursday. And we then had an opportunity to discuss with him how the Charleston plant was a hostile work environment.

And he was deposed for about four hours, and we knew that he was just really getting tired, and we decided to take a break and complete his deposition on Saturday. Saturday morning was, everything, nothing seemed right on Saturday morning. It was a horrible day. We had record rainfall. Downtown was flooded and I tried calling him on the phone to see if he wanted a ride downtown, because I knew the roads to get around the flooding and could not get in touch with him. And kept trying to call him on my way to the deposition. When I got to the deposition, lawyers and the court reporter were all sitting around the conference table.

And at around 10 o’clock or a little after 10 o’clock, I called the hotel where he was staying to see if he had checked out. He had not checked out. I asked him to check his room to see if he was still there. He was not there. And then I asked if they could check and see if his truck is outside.

He had a distinctive orange Dodge Ram truck. And the hotel manager came back and said, “The truck is there. And we called EMS.”

CHAKRABARTI: It’s an ongoing investigation, right? And Boeing has released a statement. They did soon after Mr. Barnett’s death, where they said, quote, “We are saddened by Mr. Barnett’s passing and our thoughts are with his family and friends,” end quote. And I just want to underscore that the coroner’s report says it was a self-inflicted gunshot wound that took Mr. Barnett’s life. I just want to quickly know Mr. Turkewitz, your response to that.

TURKEWITZ: The police and the coroner are still investigating, and I’d rather not draw any conclusions right now as to what happened. But I could just tell you that John’s testimony was pretty devastating the day before.

And just as a whole, I want to talk about John. If I could. John Barnett promoted integrity and ethical behavior. And I could tell you he’s as decent a person as you could imagine. He was honest and he was as dedicated as anyone to making air travel safe, and that was his concern, and he took his responsibility seriously.

So when he was testifying the day before, he was happy to be able to tell his side of the story. And that’s all John wanted to do. He wanted the world to know what the problems are, and he wanted Boeing to change its culture all along. That’s what he wanted. And when he was testifying, he was, even though he was tired, he was enthusiastic to be able to get his story out. That’s the only thing I can say. We had no indication that anything would happen the next day, other than him showing up at the deposition.

CHAKRABARTI: I definitely appreciate you not wanting to engage in any speculation.

Neither will we. It doesn’t provide any use to just trade in rumors or nonfactual or not fact-based beliefs. But I’m appreciating the fact though that you did talk about John Barnett’s integrity. And why he had taken the risk, first of all, those many years ago, to blow the whistle on Boeing.

Mr. Turkewitz, could you just describe a couple of things, maybe even from that devastating day of testimony he gave in his deposition the day prior to his death, what were the things, what were some of the things that he had seen as a quality manager in the Charleston plant that alarmed him so deeply?

TURKEWITZ: The 787 was being delayed. There were some serious delays. And management at Charleston wanted to move the assembly line as quickly as possible. And what he was finding is that people were being pressured and encouraged to not document the defects, which is required by law. The 787 has a production certificate, it’s called the PC 700 and with that certificate comes a quality management system that the FAA approved and that has to be followed. So when you’re building a plane, everything has to be documented. And the management knew that by documenting defects, it would slow the assembly line down.

By pressuring and encouraging the workers to not document defects, what happened was the build record was not accurate. And because of that, John was really concerned. And John was probably the most knowledgeable person at Boeing regarding the processes and procedures that are required in building a commercial airplane.

And he really, like I said before, he took that responsibility seriously. So he spoke out about that. Another thing that was going on was Boeing was eliminating inspection points. And because of that, the mechanics who were doing the work would end up inspecting their own work. And John was really concerned about that.

In fact, a lot of quality managers were concerned about that. Because these are not very, some of the mechanics are not very experienced. And the joke was that a lot of the mechanics still smelled like French fries because they were working at Burger King or McDonald’s three months earlier. So that was a real concern of John’s and what Boeing was doing, and it’s no secret. They were trying to eliminate quality. They were trying to eliminate the quality workers, because they were not value added and they were considered overhead.

So John spoke out about all that. He spoke out about a program that they were trying to put in place called MFP. And that program basically would allow the mechanics to inspect their own work. And what was going on there? John basically believed that the managers were pressuring the workers not to document defects, because the less defects that are found, the more likely they can sell to the FAA that mechanics can inspect their own work and it would be okay.

John just thought this was all a recipe for disaster and he spoke out about it. And as a result, he refused to follow that pressure or be pressured. And he was given very low evaluations, and he was told that he needed to work in the gray area. And that he shouldn’t be sending emails with regard to defects that he was seeing.

So all of that, John just couldn’t understand how a quality manager, a senior quality manager and management could be taking that position.

Part II

CHAKRABARTI: Today we are speaking with Robert Turkewitz. He’s an attorney who serves as co-counsel for John Barnett. John Barnett was a whistleblower at Boeing, and he was found dead with, according to a coroner’s report, a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head last month.

And Robert, Mr. Turkewitz, you had talked in detail about some of the things that Mr. Barnett, as a quality manager, had seen at the Charleston Boeing plant that had alarmed him so much. And by the way, the 787 is the 787 Dreamliner, which was a very successful aircraft for Boeing, by the way.

And to your point about Mr. Barnett really wanting to tell his story. He did speak to media even through the process of his whistleblower complaint. For example, here he is, he was featured in the 2022 Netflix documentary called Downfall: The Case Against Boeing. And he described some of the problems he saw with the quality of planes coming off the production line.

BARNETT: I was getting complaints about debris. Every day we were finding on airplanes that people were leaving, there was drawings, tools, fasteners. There was this one 787. And after a test flight, they found a ladder inside the horizontal stabilizer. All it would have taken was that ladder to fall up against the jack screw assembly and that plane would have been history.

CHAKRABARTI: Mr. Barnett also told various media outlets that he had discovered clusters of titanium slivers that were hanging just over flight control wires in some of the 787 aircraft. And those slivers were produced when fasteners were fitted into nuts, but the problem is they could have cut through. those flight control wires.

And here he is again in late January of this year, speaking to TMZ about that door plug that blew off the Alaska Airlines flight. And he shares his story about how he thought Boeing was not taking safety seriously. For example, there was a time where he expected work of Boeing suppliers.

BARNETT: I’d taken a team of four inspectors to Spirit AeroSystems to inspect the 41 sections before they sent it to Charleston. And we found 300 defects. Some of them were significant that needed engineering intervention. When I returned to Charleston, my senior manager told me that we had found too many defects and he was going to take the next trip. So the next trip he went on, he took two of my inspectors.

And when they got back, they were given accolades for only finding 50 defects. So I pulled that inspector aside and I said, “Did Spirit really clean up their act that quick?” That don’t sound right. And she was mad. She said, “No, said the two inspectors were given two hours to inspect the whole 41 section and they were kicked off the airplane.”

CHAKRABARTI: That’s John Barnett speaking to TMZ much earlier this year. Robert Turkewitz, just a couple of other things. Obviously, we can’t go into a tremendous amount of detail of all that Mr. Barnett testified to in his whistleblower case.

But I’ve also read, and I’m just hoping for a little bit of clarification about substandard parts being used and the fact that Mr. Barnett frequently said that even parts had gone missing, things like that.

TURKEWITZ: Yeah. That was a problem there. It was rampant. John talked a lot about. That there was a cage where they stored defective parts. And there were numerous keys out there for that cage and people basically were going in there and using it as a parts warehouse and just taking parts out.

In fact, there was, like, a scrap bin where parts were being taken out and that really concerned John. So he had the locks changed. And just gave out the keys just to the people on his team. And upper management said, no we all have to have access to that. And they went ahead and had 100 or more keys made so that people could continue to go into that cage and retrieve parts.

And, the problem is, it’s like the 737-door plug issue. There’s no record of it. And because of that, when you take a part out, there’s no record. Nobody knows what happened to it. So there were hundreds of lost parts that nobody knew what happened to. And John, he was assuming that those parts went onto the airplanes.

Although there was no record of it. John was telling his management that we need to find these parts, or we need to report it to the FAA, which is required by law. And he was told that no uncertain terms, we are not going to self-report this to the FAA.

CHAKRABARTI: Wow. By the way, there’s some, there’s consistency in what you’re telling us that Mr. Barnett saw and what Ed Pierson, another Boeing whistleblower who appeared on our show a little earlier this year, said regarding the documentation. Because I had talked to Mr. Pearson about the NTSB’s preliminary report after the Alaska Airlines incident with that door plug. And part of the report indicated that Boeing was having difficulty surfacing the documentation around any repairs and the assembly of that particular part of the aircraft, of that specific door plug.

And Mr. Pearson pointed out very specifically, that’s not right, that shouldn’t be happening, that a critical part of quality control and safety in aviation manufacturing is extensive detailing of every part that goes into an aircraft. And also every time something anomalous happens, that they have to repair it.

And he really focused our attention on that. So that sounds consistent with what you’re saying that Mr. Barnett was really concerned about as well, Mr. Turkewitz.

TURKEWITZ: Absolutely. It’s actually required by law and it’s a felony to falsify that record, a felony offense. And this was going on all the time.

When you talk about parts defects not being documented and work not being documented, they call that travel work, where you would have something done where it’s approved by quality. And then further work is done without quality approving it. And it just, it should never occur.

And John was, the things that John was complaining about while he was in Charleston at the plant are very similar to the things that the FAA is now finding that Boeing was doing wrong. And one of the things that really concerned John was that nobody was listening, nobody in management was listening.

And at one point in our litigation, John had offered to talk to the CEO to explain what was going on because he knew what was going on was wrong. And like you mentioned earlier, he knew that there was going to be a reckoning. And the request to speak with the CEO, we’d never heard a response.

And as you mentioned before, John loved Boeing, the old Boeing. He loved working there. He loved the people there. It was a sense of family there. And then when he came to Charleston, it was like night and day. Everything was different. And he heard things that we’ve heard.

From other workers there, that they were told this is Charleston. We could do whatever we want, or this is South Carolina. We could do whatever we want. And when people did complain, the mechanics complained and said, “Wait, this is not right, I don’t think we should be doing this.” They were told, “Do it or you’re out of here. And there’s a hundred people outside the gate who want your job.” So that was the attitude. That was there in Charleston.

CHAKRABARTI: So I’m glad you mentioned traveled work because in a statement Boeing sent to us, and we’ll definitely be reading parts of the statement throughout the hour, CFO Brian West is quoted as saying, “Traveled work has existed for a very long time and in recent years we tried to get ahead of it. Turns out it wasn’t enough.

So now calling for a steep change improvement in how we think about traveled work because it speaks to our culture, and it speaks to our people.” End quote. We’ll talk about that more in just a second here, but Mr. Turkewitz, again, I just want to hear from John Barnett himself, and this is from 2019 when he spoke to the New York Times, about what you were just mentioning, how much he used to love working for Boeing.

BARNETT: Boeing was the place, they were the place to work, and oh my God, it was amazing when I put that Boeing shirt on. How my chest puffed out. I’d walk into the store around here and they’re like, “Oh, you work for Boeing? That is awesome. And thank y’all so much. And you just mean so much to this area.”

And it was just awesome. And it’s just, we don’t have that anymore here. Nobody does. everybody I talk to in Boeing, they’re embarrassed to work there most of the time. It’s just, it’s gone.

CHAKRABARTI: The consistency with which former employers, employees of Boeing have said this on our show, On Point, is remarkable.

You just heard John Barnett say that, he used to be so proud to work for the company. Ed Pierson has said that when he was on our show earlier this year, and our first show about the 737 MAX after the Lion and Ethiopian Air crashes. We had a veteran from Boeing on who she’d worked there for several decades and said it was the greatest engineering company to work for in the world until major culture changes came through.

And by the way, if you go to onpointradio.org or to our podcast feed and look for our Boeing shows, they are all worth listening to. Here’s another one. And this is John Barnett again in 2019 talking about why he decided to speak up.

BARNETT: I don’t know, I got a conscience or something, I don’t know. But I just, I had to get it, I have to get it addressed.

That’s why I keep telling my story. Somebody’s got to step in and get it addressed.

CHAKRABARTI: That was John Barnett in 2019. Rob Turkewitz, hold on a minute. Because I want to bring Andy Pasztor into the conversation. He’s covered aviation safety for the Wall Street Journal, did so from the 1980s all the way until 2021, when he retired and he’s now writing a book on aviation safety. Andy, welcome to On Point.

ANDY PASZTOR: It’s good to be with you to talk about such an important and timely topic.

CHAKRABARTI: So let me ask you, Andy, we began the show noting that there has been a major leadership shakeup at Boeing. The CEO not going to step down at the end of this year, chair of the board not running again, and the head of commercial aviation gone as of the day of Boeing’s announcement a few days ago.

Is that the beginning of the kind of culture change needed at Boeing that people like John Barnett are seeking or were seeking?

PASZTOR: Certainly, many people hope so. Many regulators and lawmakers and the flying public hopes that is the beginning of a change. But we have to be skeptical, I would say, about what we’re seeing and how far we can go.

Boeing has a glorious engineering history, as Mr. Barnett talked about, and others have talked about. And there’s this old saying that I love to talk to people about, that pilots always repeat it half whimsically. They said, “If it ain’t Boeing, I ain’t going.” People love the company and love the aircraft.

But, at the same time, stretching back to the 1980s, Boeing had this other side, this underside, this underbelly of legal and ethical, significant legal and ethical problems. Some of them in their defense operations, some of them in their commercial airline operations. And throughout those years, there are instances where they promised, fervently promised, that they would in fact change.

Where the government charged them with criminal violations, they were put on, essentially, corporate probation. And they promised that they would not repeat any of those illicit activities. And in fact, they did, and the company did. And so I think we have to be skeptical about how well this corporate culture change will go.

There haven’t been many outsiders brought in to the company. There has not been a very clear-cut succession plan. Before the latest problems, which is unusual. Because over the decades, Boeing did have very good succession planning. So I think that we have to be skeptical and just watch very carefully about how this takes place.

One small anecdote, which I think represents the fact that they are not yet perhaps the kind of transparent and law abiding and rule abiding company that everybody hopes that they will be. Even when Dave Calhoun announced that he was leaving as a president, days before some of Boeing’s major airline customers came to the board of directors of Boeing and said, “We want to talk with you about all of these quality issues and problems that you’re having.

And we don’t want Dave Calhoun in these meetings. We just want to talk to the board.” And even at that late date, the company publicly said, Mr. Calhoun supported the idea of having meetings, but just with the board. And so even then they were obvious. Anybody who knows anything about big business or small business, if the CEO is not going to be in the meetings, that CEO is not long for the job. But even at the end, they couldn’t really clearly and honestly say, we’re going to make big changes and bring outsiders in.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. I want to just take a quick pause here for a second and just lay a common foundation that I think it’s important given the scariness of some of what we’re discussing here. That overall, though, aviation, the aviation safety record of U.S. built planes is very good, Andy.

I think that’s a fair way of putting it. Yes?

PASZTOR: Absolutely beyond doubt and if you look at the numbers, it’s astounding and that’s why this bad news and the spate of bad publicity and the spate of problems that Boeing has had recently really cuts counter goes in the opposite direction. In the last 15 years, U.S. airlines, including regional and major mainline carriers, all of the airlines that your listeners know, have flown about 12 billion passengers in the last 15 years. And there has been one fatality. So the record is stupendous. It’s better than anybody ever imagined. But it’s important to remember that you have to work hard to keep that record.

And that’s what the FAA and folks on the Hill and safety experts are concerned about. You have to work extra hard, because the record is so good. And if there’s some erosion of safety standards or production standards or operating standards, that history can change pretty quickly. Those data points can change pretty quickly.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. And we’ll get to the FAA more in just a minute here, but I think it’s fair to say that remarkable safety standard, which again, or safety record, which is true, as more and more information comes out about Boeing’s practices, one maybe can’t say that it’s come from Boeing corporate leadership.

That safety record has come because of people like John Barnett and Ed Pierson and all the engineers and supervisors who were working well, particularly the engineers, on the factory floor at Boeing’s plants. And then the maintenance crews. So people we don’t really think about on a daily basis as parts of the flying public who have kept these airlines in flying condition. So I just want to mention that there are thousands of people that are part of this story who have been doing their jobs and we are greatly appreciative for that.

Part III

CHAKRABARTI: I just want to hear a little bit more from Mr. Barnett himself. This is him again from that 2022 Netflix documentary, Downfall: The Case Against Boeing.

BARNETT: My pay was docked for putting quality concerns in writing.

They told us flat out they do not want anything in documentation so they can maintain culpable deniability. They don’t want anything documented.

CHAKRABARTI: Robert Turkewitz, can you talk about that a little bit more? Because it seems to relate pretty strongly to what Andy was telling us in the previous segment about a pattern that Boeing has had for perhaps longer than most people know.

TURKEWITZ: Yeah. As I mentioned before, it’s required by law that you document everything that’s done to building an airplane and that goes into the build record and John was talking about the fact that they were not documenting these things. And it was a culture of really a culture of silence, a culture of concealment in a way.

And part of the problem was, or a big part of the problem was that a lot of people just didn’t know what the regulations required. And some of these managers came from the defense side of the house, where they have different rules and everything else. And they were not familiar with the regulations for commercial aircraft building.

It’s got to come from the top and when the top is pressuring workers not to document these problems, then you’ve got a real problem. And you had mentioned before, what can Boeing do to change this? And John was always saying that Boeing needs to, he’s always saying that actions speak louder than words and that Boeing needs to put quality as their top focus.

And that would include having people who are educated in quality at the top, educating the workforce about quality. And having quality as a separate department from manufacturing, where quality is not under manufacturing and beholden to manufacturing. As it appeared in Charleston.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. As we heard Mr. Barnett again in that Netflix documentary and other whistleblowers having said quite clearly, they were not listened to. Again, from a very recent statement that Boeing has made. And this is the comments from CFO Brian West, who says, quote, “For years, we prioritized the movement of the airplane through the factory over getting it done right. And that’s got to change, because once you do reduce traveled work, your quality gets better, your stability gets better. Most importantly, the work of the mechanic gets better, and they know that better than anybody. We’ve got to listen and act on their behalf,” end quote.

Andy Pasztor, check me on this, because it seems quite remarkable that Boeing has now officially said out loud things that employees were saying earlier. That they just wanted to push the airplanes through the factory as fast as possible, prioritizing that over other things.

PASZTOR: That’s absolutely correct. That’s corporate speak for saying that we were more interested in the bottom line and the return to shareholders and our quarterly return and quarterly reports on financial performance, than we were on safety.

And that’s a full-throated admission and also an acknowledgement or in a statement that they’re going to try to do better. Many reporters and folks in the government have talked about the merger with McDonnell Douglas in 1997 as changing that culture. And I think that’s true. It brought in a whole different way of looking at the business and some of the McDonnell Douglas executives did have a different approach, a much more business oriented, financial performance oriented approach, which put shareholder return above safety.

But I think it’s also important to remember that since the 1970s, Boeing has had, late 1970s, five specific examples of significant legal and ethical violations, some of which they were prosecuted for, some of which they barely escaped prosecution for. But there is this pattern inside the company, of executives pretending that improving ethics and improving the safety, and improving the honesty of what they’re portraying to the public, you can do that with public relations efforts, and you can do it with a sort of simplistic slogans and minor changes. Which is what they’ve tried to do over the years. This time, it appears as though they recognize that it’s a much different situation and the company really does have to change.

But as I said before, it requires a change in focus, but also some new blood. So far, Boeing, since the MAX crashes, since the 737 MAX crashes, they’ve replaced some senior folks who were there at the time, but they haven’t really brought in senior level executives from outside the company who may have the ability to look at things in a different way.

And I think that’s essential, and we’ll see if they do that.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So Andy, I really want to focus on one thing with you for just another couple of minutes, because you’re exactly right. Many people, including us here at On Point, have spent, we did a lot of shows focusing on that 1997 merger with McDonnell Douglas.

And in fact, it’s a point in Boeing’s history that even Mr. Barnett points to. So here he is in that 2022 Netflix documentary again, talking about things that he saw changing in Boeing after that ’97 merger.

BARNETT: Used to be when you raise your hand and say, we got a problem here. They would say, yeah, you’re right, we’re gonna fix it.

After the merger with McDonnell Douglas, the Airbus coming home, Boeing quit listing their employees. So every time I’d raise my hand and say, hey, we got a problem here, they would attack the messenger. And ignore the message.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, so there’s lots of consistency there. Just wanted to hear Mr. Barnett’s take on that. Again, before he died. But Andy, what I’d really love to hear from you more is, you’ve said twice now in our conversation that you have to look even further back to the late ’70s and early ’80s in Boeing. I did not know that, to be perfectly frank. You said there were several ethical violations that I guess Boeing was caught out on.

Can you tell us more specifically what one or two of them were?

PASZTOR: Of course. And we can take all of them off. It goes back to the late 19, actually late 1970s. They were investigated for illicitly acquiring classified Pentagon missile documents. Nobody was prosecuted, but executives were punished.

The mid 1980s, Boeing acquired Pentagon budget documents, along with other defense contractors, that they should not have had in their possession. They were deemed off limits to contractors. The documents were traded like baseball cards. This is all in the court record, and has been well documented.

They paid a tiny $5.2 million fine. And then were not stripped of government contracts. In 2006, they paid $615 million for stealing a rival rocket, rival company’s rocket development plans. And for basically trying to steer a huge air force tanker contract illegally to the company. Prosecution seats.

Some senior executives were prosecuted. Once again, the company was put on probation, not stripped of contracts. And significantly, in 2015, Boeing paid $12 million to the FAA for 13 separate safety and quality control investigations, where they acknowledged that they had not done what they were supposed to do.

And again, they were not, no significant repercussions. And they never followed up and did all of the corrections that they promised the FAA to do. So it’s a pretty long, long history. And the important thing is that each time when these things occurred, senior executives at Boeing promised the public and everyone else that they understood.

They knew how important it was to change and that they were going to change. And just an example, the chairman in 2006, Jim McNerney, after they paid $615 million and were considered the poster child, really, of Pentagon corruption, contracting corruption, he said that we understand what we need to do, and the strict ethics rules have been, quote, “incorporated into the fabric of the company.”

That’s 2016. And so, that’s 2006, excuse me. So look what’s happened since then. And we’re back at the same place. Full throated acknowledgement, full throated apology at this point, but it has to be followed up with significant action. And that’s still to be decided.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. And so in the absence of adequate significant action, it’s been left to people like John Barnett, Ed Pierson and others to take the risk with their careers. To tell the public, look, what’s still going on here. Now, Robert Turkewitz. Look, the FAA is investigating the 737 MAX manufacturing facilities and I believe also the 787 facility in Charleston.

Is that correct?

TURKEWITZ: Yes. In fact, just recently the FAA made the decision that they were going to be the ones to do the final inspections of the planes. It used to be that Boeing would do it. And that’s an indication right there that the FAA is taking over that. And it’s because of the problems that have been reoccurring at the Charleston plant. That’s a huge change.

CHAKRABARTI: And so we called the FAA, we contacted the FAA to understand exactly what they said they have committed to doing. And in a statement, they didn’t say explicitly that they are going to do the final inspections of the planes.

But here’s what they did say to us. They said, quote, “As part of its aggressive oversight of Boeing and its suppliers, the FAA recently concluded an audit of Boeing’s production line that went above and beyond FAA’s standard inspection process. They identified noncompliance issues in Boeing’s manufacturing process control, parts handling, and storage and product control.

Their audit is complete, but it is part of an ongoing investigation. We cannot release further details.” But they did quote FAA Administrator Mike Whitaker as saying, quote, “This will not be back to business as usual for Boeing. They must commit to real and profound improvements. Making foundational change will require sustained effort from Boeing’s leadership, and we are going to hold them accountable every step of the way,” end quote.

Andy Pasztor. Okay, the FAA is using very strong, even if slightly nonspecific language. But from the long list of data points that you said earlier, over the past several decades, one would have thought that there was enough evidence that Boeing needed even more strenuous regulatory oversight long before now.

So is the FAA actually being more strenuous now or not?

PASZTOR: I think they’re trying to say, and they’re making steps toward being much more proactive. But the important point to remember, which you referred to earlier, the U.S. aviation system is so unbelievably safe. And one of the main reasons, I would say probably the most important reason it’s so safe is because of non-punitive voluntary reporting.

Pilots, mechanics, air traffic controllers, everybody who touches an aircraft or flies an aircraft or maintains an aircraft, they have voluntary reporting systems. They’re obligated to speak up when they see something that’s a problem, that’s an incipient problem, that’s developing, hasn’t caused a crash, hasn’t killed anybody, nobody’s been blamed for anything, but here’s a problem that we need to deal with so it doesn’t become more serious.

That is the basis of the U.S. aviation safety system. And that’s the kind of system that Boeing has to put internally. They have to internalize it, and they have to make it clear to their workers that you’re required, we expect you to tell us when there’s a problem.

And in fact, you will be punished if you don’t tell us, if you tell us and it’s not something that you purposely did as to create a problem. We understand that people make mistakes, and we want to catch them before they cause accidents. I think that’s the fundamental part here. The FAA can say and do all of the things that it’s saying and doing and they are getting tougher and they will get tougher and they need to get tougher.

But the fundamental issue is voluntary, non-reporting, non-punitive reporting. And Boeing has not had enough of that. Congressional investigations have shown that’s a huge, really a failure in the company.

CHAKRABARTI: This is the very basis of John Barnett’s whistleblower case, right?

Because he said that when he did raise those issues, he was retaliated against. Exactly the opposite of what you’re saying Boeing needs to do. Robert Turkewitz we just have 15 or 20 seconds left. Are you continuing Mr. Barnett’s retaliation case?

TURKEWITZ: We are, the family wishes to continue it and we are going to be substituting John Barnett’s estate as a complainant and we have a September trial date, by the way.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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