As political storms stir Boeing, board sticks to course -- and Calhoun

Patrick Malone, The Seattle Times on

Published in Business News

Boeing’s conspicuous manufacturing woes and the resulting scrutiny from regulators, Congress and the flying public cast a shadow Friday over the company’s annual shareholder meeting.

In his opening speech, Steve Mollenkopf, independent chair of the Boeing board of directors, addressed wounds to the company’s reputation suffered since the midair blowout of a fuselage panel in January.

Mollenkopf vowed to “regain the trust lost in recent times, get back on track and become the company that we all know Boeing can and must be every day,” with the caveat that “recent events make it absolutely clear that we have much work to do.”

Even so, the chairman said, “the Boeing board remains fully confident in our future.”

The annual shareholder event comes at a critical moment for Boeing. Boeing brought commercial air travel to the masses and anchored the economy of the Seattle area for the better part of a century. But as the aerospace giant concludes perhaps the grimmest five-year run in its storied history, it’s facing intense scrutiny from Congress and the Federal Aviation Administration over its commitment to quality and willingness to listen when its workers flag manufacturing errors.

Congressional hearings in the wake of international crashes of Boeing Max 8 aircraft in 2018 and 2019 that killed nearly 350 passengers dragged Boeing for its responses to employees who had flagged manufacturing deficiencies. The hearings featured testimony from people who said they faced retaliation for relating anomalies, and evidence that workers had become reluctant to speak up because of managers’ negative responses. Those hearings concluded that prioritizing the profits that reward stockholders overshadowed Boeing’s commitment to safety.


In the aftermath of the January fuselage-panel blowout, still more congressional hearings are being held. Whistleblowers again described experiences that signaled Boeing’s refusal to take seriously internal criticism or troubling observations from employees. The deaths of two high-profile whistleblowers this year have drawn added attention to the company’s treatment of internal critics.

“A strong company listens to its people,” Dave Calhoun, the outgoing Boeing CEO, told shareholders Friday. “It listens to its critics.”

Since the January blowout, more than 70,000 of Boeing’s 170,000 workers took part in “quality stand downs” that generated tens of thousands of ideas for safety improvement, Calhoun said. Over the same span, he said the company experienced a fivefold increase in reports from employees about quality concerns.

“That signals real progress toward a robust reporting culture,” Calhoun said.


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