US Senate hearings focus on safety culture at Boeing

'I was told, frankly, to shut up,' whistleblower Sam Salehpour tells politicians

After a Boeing 737 Max 9 aircraft lost a section of its fuselage mid-flight this year, US regulators have tightened oversight of the company. AP
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Boeing came under the microscope in two US Senate hearings on Wednesday, with experts and a whistleblower testifying on safety failures at the plane maker.

Members of the Senate commerce committee said the public needs to be reassured that it is safe to board a Boeing-made plane, as experts told the panel about serious flaws in the company's safety culture.

“Flying commercial remains the safest way to travel but understandably, recent incidents have left the flying public worried,” said Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican.

“The perception is things are getting worse.”

In a February report, an expert panel said that, despite improvements made after crashes of two Boeing Max jets in 2018 and 2019 killed 346 people, the safety culture at the company is still flawed and employees who raise concerns could be subject to pressure and retaliation.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology aeronautics lecturer Javier de Luis, who was part of the expert panel, said Boeing management promoted safety while workers observed something very different on the factory floor.

“There was a very real fear of payback and retribution if you held your ground,” Mr de Luis said workers had told him.

Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat, told the homeland security and governmental affairs' investigations subcommittee that “to create a genuine and comprehensive culture of safety, Boeing must create workplace conditions where everyone feels comfortable reporting quality and safety concerns, even in situations where concerns to be turned out to be unfounded”.

Boeing whistleblower Sam Salehpour said that during his time as an engineer at the company, his reported safety concerns were ignored.

“I was told, frankly, to shut up,” he told legislators.

Mr Salehpour said that, through analysing Boeing's data, he concluded that since 2013, the company has taken manufacturing shortcuts on the 787 programme, which may significantly reduce the plane's safety and lifecycle.

After a Boeing 737 Max 9 aircraft lost a section of its fuselage mid-flight this year, US regulators have tightened oversight of the company.

The plane maker has been given 90 days to come up with a comprehensive response and fix its production issues.

Boeing has defended the safety and manufacturing of its 787 Dreamliner, saying it had found no evidence of airframe fatigue after extensive testing of its carbon-fibre fuselage and heavy maintenance checks of the nearly 700 of the jets already flying commercially.

“Under FAA oversight, we have painstakingly inspected and reworked aeroplanes and improved production quality to meet exacting standards that are measured in the one-hundreds of an inch,” the company said in a statement issued before the hearings.

“We are fully confident in the safety and durability of the 787 Dreamliner.”

Updated: April 17, 2024, 8:00 PM