Boeing workers still scared to raise safety concerns, say FAA-appointed experts

Lauren Rosenblatt, The Seattle Times on

Published in Business News

After spending a year interviewing Boeing employees and executives, documenting the company’s safety processes and taking stock of changes Boeing made after two deadly 737 Max crashes, an expert panel determined the company has much more work to do.

Among its many findings, the panel concluded Boeing employees fear retaliation if they speak up about safety concerns, aren’t sure how they fit into the company’s broader safety management system, and lack confidence that changes would be made if they do make suggestions.

Boeing’s safety culture needed to substantially change to keep up with “the public interest in aviation safety,” the 24-member panel found in its report, which was released in February and presented to the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday. The panel described a “disconnect” between what Boeing senior management said about safety and how Boeing frontline employees felt it was prioritized at the company.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee held a hearing with three members of that Federal Aviation Administration-appointed panel to determine what else federal regulators should do to ensure Boeing aircraft are safe to fly. That hearing coincided with testimony offered by whistleblowers testifying before a Homeland Security Senate subcommittee, during which one former Boeing engineer described what he termed a “criminal cover up” by the company.

Tracy Dillinger, a member of the panel and manager for safety culture and human factors at NASA, told members of Congress on Wednesday that a company like Boeing could recover “from a catastrophic loss” but it would take a bigger focus on safety.

“It’s about trust, it’s about communication, it’s about being there [and] having a workforce that comes in, that’s trained, that’s energetic, that’s curious, that’s dedicated,” Dillinger said. “An organization can recover … by pulling all those resources together and focusing on the mission and how everybody works together.

“But to do that, all these parts have to come together with safety as a priority.”

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, who chairs the Commerce Committee, said the expert panel’s 53 recommendations serve as “an important catalyst” for future aviation legislation. Cantwell pointed to legislation that has already been passed and legislation still under consideration — namely the FAA reauthorization bill — but said she doesn’t want to stop there.

But Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, cautioned against Congress “legislating just to legislate.”

Boeing said Wednesday it will “take the FAA review panel’s detailed assessment to heart and will act on their findings and feedback.”

“Since 2020, Boeing has taken important steps to foster a safety culture that empowers and encourages all employees to raise their voice,” a spokesperson said. “We know we have more work to do and we are taking action across our company.”

The expert panel’s report came weeks after another incident involving a Boeing plane reignited congressional calls for change at the company. In January, a piece of fuselage blew off a Boeing 737 Max 9 plane, leaving a gaping hole in the side of the aircraft and reopening questions about the manufacturer’s process and attention to safety.

The report did not directly address the fuselage blow out, but the panelists said they considered safety incidents involving Boeing planes as they occurred.

For Javier de Luis, a member of the panel and lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s department of aeronautics and astronautics, the topic of Wednesday’s hearing was also personal. His sister, Graziella de Luis Ponce, died in the 2019 Ethiopian Airlines crash, the second fatal crash involving the Max plane in months.

Speaking Wednesday, de Luis said it seems the panel blow out prompted Boeing leadership to admit it must make changes, referencing recent comments Chief Financial Officer Brian West made to investors.

But, de Luis said, “I would have thought they would have gotten it five years ago.”

Self-certifying concerns

Much of the panel’s report and discussion on Wednesday centered around an FAA program that allowed Boeing to self-certify its own work. That program — Organization Designation Authorization, or ODA — was set up in 2005 and has been under scrutiny since the fatal Max crashes.

On a press call ahead of the hearing, Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Illinois, said she believes the ODA program “needs to be relooked at” and that she wants to ensure the “bad actors are removed from that process within Boeing.”

The company’s ODA unit includes more than 1,000 people who conduct certain legally required tasks for the FAA, like inspections and design approval. The panel found Boeing had the appropriate framework in place for the process to work as it was supposed to, but that it fell short in implementation.

Boeing was losing experienced engineers able to “adequately” assess safety requirements and processes, and not hiring new ones to keep up, the panel found. Members of the ODA unit outside Boeing’s Puget Sound headquarters felt isolated and less supported in their work.

Most concerning to the panel, the experts told Congress on Wednesday, was that those employees tasked with certifying tasks on behalf of the FAA felt the same “disconnect” other Boeing employees had described about prioritizing safety and fears of retaliation.

The managers who had access to information about safety investigations also made decisions about promotions and job transfers. Some employees told the panel they did not receive a raise they had been expecting after bringing up safety concerns.

Contractors on the ODA unit felt their job scrutiny hinged on positive reports, the panel found.


Boeing said Wednesday retaliation is strictly prohibited.

In 2021 and 2022, Boeing took steps to change the structure of its self-certifying program but, the report found, those changes haven’t been fully implemented.

The company and the FAA have also overruled findings from those employees in charge of certifying work and raising concerns, the panel found. At the same time, the FAA had asked some workers to report on areas that are beyond “formally delegated functions.”

In a statement Wednesday, a spokesperson for the FAA said the agency “agrees with and is addressing all the recommendations … from the expert ODA panel.”

Confusion among Boeing employees

The panel also found that while Boeing had several mechanisms in place for employees to raise issues, the process was confusing for workers on the ground. Those employees didn’t trust the systems would lead to change.

Most employees interviewed by the expert panel did not know what safety metric they were working toward. They also didn’t know whether problems they raised had been resolved. About 95% of employees said they did not know who Boeing’s chief safety officer was.

Workers “need to learn who the key people are in that system — so they know who they can go to when the processes don’t work,” Dillinger said.

Many employees also said they did not trust they could report issues anonymously.

Boeing said it has seen a 500% increase in the last year in employee reports through the company’s Speak Up portal, one of those mechanisms for workers to raise concerns. Additionally, more than 40,000 employees have participated in “quality stand downs” at dozens of Boeing sites, where workers brainstorm ways to improve the company’s product system and culture.

“We continue to put safety and quality above all else and share information transparently with our regulator, customers and other stakeholders,” the spokesperson said.

Despite several programs Boeing put in place for workers to report concerns, most preferred to talk directly to their managers, the report found. But there was no evidence that those issues were then captured in a way that could lead to systematic changes.

De Luis recalled standing with workers at one station and asking them the most common problem that they found. Debris left in the plane, they responded, adding that they would report what they found and clean it out. De Luis asked if they ever tried to trace where that debris was coming from.

“They say we report it, someone’s supposed to fix it, and we move in,” De Luis recalled on Wednesday. “But that’s not the way you’re supposed to fix things.”

“I firmly believe you can’t inspect your way to quality and you can’t inspect your way to safety,” he continued. “All it’s gonna take is one slip.”

What else does Congress want to know?

While Cantwell said Wednesday “there is more to be done to implement the recommendations of the report,” it’s not clear what steps Congress will take next.

Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Missouri, said he was disappointed Boeing employees and executives were not present at Wednesday’s hearing. Cantwell responded that she anticipated hearing from Boeing and the FAA in the future.

Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Georgia, said he wants more investigation into Boeing’s supply chain, noting that it has outsourced some work to third-party suppliers, who then outsource their own work to international companies.

Cruz, ranking member for the Commerce Committee, said he hopes to hear more about what circumstances led to the panel blowout in January.

“Flying commercial remains the safest way to travel, but understandably recent incidents have left the flying public worried,” Cruz said. “The perception is things are getting worse. The public wants the FAA and Congress to confront perceived risks in order to restore confidence for flyers.”

Following the report’s release in February, Boeing had 90 days to issue a plan to address the results and recommendations. That deadline is set for May 28.

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