Boeing CEO recognizes 'gravity' of safety crisis but sees 'progress'

Michael Stumo and his wife Nadia Milleron, the parents of Samya Rose Stumo, listen as Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun (R) speaks directly to family members of those killed in the Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 and Lion Air Flight 610 crashes (Andrew Harnik)
Michael Stumo and his wife Nadia Milleron, the parents of Samya Rose Stumo, listen as Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun (R) speaks directly to family members of those killed in the Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 and Lion Air Flight 610 crashes (Andrew Harnik)

Boeing's CEO acknowledged to a US congressional panel Tuesday that the company's culture was imperfect, but insisted the aviation giant was making progress and committed to improving safety.

"Our culture is far from perfect, but we are taking action and making progress," Calhoun said early in the hearing. Calhoun opened his remarks by standing to apologize to family members of victims from two Boeing 737 MAX in 2018 and 2019.

The hearing, an examination of "Boeing's Broken Safety Culture," follows an April session of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations featuring a Boeing engineer who testified that he was punished for raising safety questions about the top-selling 787 Dreamliner and 777.

Calhoun's appearance marked his first testimony before a congressional panel since an alarming mid-flight incident in January on a 737 MAX plunged the company back into crisis mode. US investigators are still probing the incident with the Alaska Airlines plane, which made an emergency landing after a fuselage panel blew out.

On Tuesday morning, the Senate committee detailed additional complaints from Boeing workers, including an official filing from a whistleblower who worried that Boeing's lax policies on the use of damaged or inadequate parts could "lead to a catastrophic event," according to a subcommittee memo.

Boeing stands "at a moment of reckoning and an opportunity to change a broken safety culture," said Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal, who chaired the hearing.

The session came ahead of a Department of Justice determination on next steps after concluding in May that the company could be prosecuted for violating a criminal settlement following two fatal 737 MAX crashes in 2018 and 2019, off Indonesia and in Ethiopia.

Blumenthal said there "is near overwhelming evidence... that prosecution should be pursued."

At the conclusion of the hearing, Blumenthal said the company needs a "course correction" involving more than replacing a single manager. He vowed to keep up oversight of the company.

Calhoun faced aggressive questioning from several lawmakers, including Missouri Republican Josh Hawley who ridiculed the CEO's $33 million compensation plan last year and said Calhoun should have resigned.

"You're the problem," Hawley told Calhoun. "And I just hope to God that you don't destroy this company before it can be saved."

Calhoun has said he plans to step down as CEO at the end of 2024. The company is looking for a successor.

- New whistleblower -

At the April 17 hearing, witnesses painted a disturbing picture of a company that dismissed safety questions and sidelined critics as it chased faster production and bigger profits.

The star witness was engineer Sam Salehpour, who went public with allegations that, because of flawed manufacturing processes, the Dreamliner could suffer a potentially catastrophic accident because of excessively large gaps in the plane's assembly.

Boeing has pointed to extensive testing that it says proves the 787 is safe.

Calhoun emphasized that he welcomes when workers speak out about problems, viewing such expressions as a critical component of safety.

He also pledged to get back to the committee on questions about workers who may have been fired for expressing concerns about safety.

Calhoun also said he would provide details on instances on how the company responds to workers who engage in retaliation against workers who speak out.

The Senate panel on Tuesday released details on additional workers who have come forward with problems.

This includes a new whistleblower, Sam Mohawk, who said that Boeing ordered improperly stored parts to be hidden from federal aviation inspectors, who would have demanded Boeing increase storage capacity and hire additional staff, raising costs.

The hearing was attended by a small group of family members who lost relatives in the 2018 and 2019 MAX crashes, which together claimed 346 lives. The group held signs with their loved ones at the outset of the session.

Calhoun is a "mass killer," said Adnaan Stumo, brother to Nadia Milleron, who died in the Ethiopian Airlines crash. "There needs to be criminal charges for the people at the top."

"Accountability should be held for all the decisions," said Chris Moore, who lost his daughter to a MAX crash.

Erin Applebaum, a law partner at Kreindler & Kreindler LLP, which represents 34 families who lost loved ones on Boeing's flight in 2018, noted that Calhoun responded in the affirmative to a question about holding individuals accountable for the company's bad acts.

"The US Department of Justice should take Mr. Calhoun's words to heart and move forward with criminal charges against Boeing executives -- starting with the CEO himself," Applebaum said.