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Boeing CEO faced sharp criticism from angry lawmakers on Capitol Hill

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

The head of troubled plane-maker Boeing was grilled today on Capitol Hill. CEO Dave Calhoun testified in public for the first time since a door plug panel blew out of a 737 Max jet in midair. He faced difficult questions from senators in both parties, including Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut.

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RICHARD BLUMENTHAL: This hearing is a moment of reckoning. It is about a company, once an iconic company known for engineering excellence, that somehow lost its way.

PFEIFFER: Calhoun's appearance came on the same day that a new whistleblower raised new allegations about Boeing's manufacturing and quality control. NPR's Joel Rose has been following all of this and is with the studio to tell us more about it. Hi, Joel.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Hey, Sacha.

PFEIFFER: This hearing has been a long time coming. What was it like?

ROSE: Yeah, more than five months since that door plug blowout during an Alaska Airlines flight. That incident renewed deep concerns about Boeing's focus on quality control and the company's culture, whether it puts profits ahead of safety. CEO Dave Calhoun tried to answer those questions today. Here's a clip.

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DAVE CALHOUN: Much has been said about Boeing's culture. We've heard those concerns loud and clear. Our culture is far from perfect, but we are taking action, and we are making progress.

ROSE: Calhoun talked about the detailed action plan that Boeing has given federal regulators, how it's slowed production of the 737 and other steps that the company is taking to try to shore up quality at its own factories and those of its suppliers.

PFEIFFER: How convinced or not did senators seem?

ROSE: Senators were very skeptical. They note that Boeing leaders have said a lot of these things before, after the deadly crashes of two Boeing 737 Max jets in 2018 and 2019 that killed 346 people. And they - senators pointed out that whistleblowers who've come forward to identify quality control problems say that they have faced retaliation. Here's Josh Hawley, Republican senator from Missouri.

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JOSH HAWLEY: We've had multiple whistleblowers come before this committee and allege that Boeing is cutting every possible corner on quality and safety, not just in the past, but now. They've alleged that when they raised quality issues and concerns, they were reassigned, they were retaliated against, they were physically threatened. That doesn't sound like attention to quality to me.

ROSE: Boeing policy, I should say, explicitly prohibits retaliation against whistleblowers, but senators today challenged Calhoun to say if anyone at Boeing has been punished for violating that policy. Calhoun said it has happened, but he could not say how many times.

PFEIFFER: And as we said, there are yet more allegations concerning the 737. What can you tell us about these latest ones?

ROSE: These come from the Senate Homeland Security committee's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which convened today's hearing. On the eve of that hearing, the committee released allegations of fraud at the factory where the company assembles the 737 in Renton, Wash., from a new whistleblower who works at the factory named Sam Mohawk. He says Boeing routinely lost track of defective or nonconforming parts - likely allowing some of them to be installed in airplanes - and then deliberately hid this mismanagement from federal regulators. This is similar to what other whistleblowers have alleged about practices in different Boeing factories. Boeing says it is reviewing these new claims.

PFEIFFER: And Boeing could still face criminal prosecution. Where does that stand?

ROSE: This goes back to those crashes of two 737 Max jets more than five years ago. Boeing struck a deal with the Justice Department to avoid prosecution for misleading regulators about the safety of those planes. Basically, the company was put on probation for three years. Family members of the crash victims have long criticized what they call a sweetheart deal. They want to see Boeing's leaders held accountable. Many of those family members were in the room today when Calhoun testified, holding up photographs of loved ones who died in those crashes. Federal prosecutors now say Boeing has not held up its end of that deal. They are expected to announce soon what they're going to do next.

PFEIFFER: That is NPR transportation correspondent Joel Rose. Thank you.

ROSE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.