Is Boeing Management Shakeup Linked to Criminal Investigation?

March 25, 2024 / 1 Comment

Boeing’s much-discussed but hardly assured shake-up was announced early this morning. The company CEO, David Calhoun will resign at the end of 2024, and the president of the Commercial Airplane division, Stan Deal leaves immediately. Chairman of the Board, Larry Kellner will not run for reelection to the post he has held for the past 5 years.

“The eyes of the world are on us, and I know we will come through this moment a better company,” Calhoun said in a letter.

How strong the desire was to improve in areas beyond those linked directly to the bottom line is debatable. I suspect what finally pushed accountability to the C-Suite is the possibility that some of its occupants may soon be facing criminal charges.

On its face, the near catestrophe on the 737 Max flown by Alaska Airlines on January 5th is linked to the two previous crashes of 737 Max airliners. The first disaster, in Indonesia in 2018 was followed five months later by the crash of Ethiopia Airlines Flight 302 in March of 2019. All three events demonstrate lapses in design and manufacturing at the company.

Less discussed is the criminal charge Boeing faced from the first two Max disasters that was, ostensibly, resolved in a plea deal with the Department of Justice in 2021. Boeing could avoid standing trial for the fraud that contributed to the crashes that killed 346 people in exchange for mending its ways for the next three years.

And despite continuing evidence of slapdash work at Boeing’s assembly plants and a culture in which Boeing employees are afraid to speak out about hazards, the planemaker came thisclose to crossing the finish line that could have let it off that particular legal hook.

On January 5th, however, just two days before that agreement was to conclude, Alaska flight 1282 out of Portland, Oregon nearly came to grief when a door plug blew out as the plane ascended through 13-thousand feet. The 177 people on board were exposed to fierce winds, bitter cold and the terrifying possibility that they were living their last moments.

It soon became clear that the manufacturing process at Boeing was so flawed that the Alaska Airlines plane had been delivered fresh from the factory without the door attachment bolts installed.

Bad press is one thing and news cycles turn. But this not only opened Boeing up to a new criminal investigation into the Alaska fiasco, it could very well resuscitate the fraud charge filed after the Indonesian and Ethiopian crashes.

Even at a time in America when a former president faces multiple criminal trials in multiple jurisdictions, the possibility that Boeing executives could face multiple criminal charges still seems huge. Corporate executives don’t have the former president’s gift of turning prosecution into political capital. Further, the relevance of a president’s action to any individual’s life may be seen as somewhat attenuated but people fly on Boeing jets If you haven’t seen John Oliver’s recent show on Boeing, I urge you to check it out via the link at the end of this post.

Criminalizing behavior that contributes to air accidents is not common in the United States or many other countries and with good reason. Blame and punishment are antithetical to the goal of aviation safety which is to learn from mistakes so they are not repeated.

“The aviation industry has a remarkable safety record due in large part to the willingness of operators and manufacturers to cooperate fully and frankly with investigating authorities,” Dr. Hassan Shahidi, the CEO of the Flight Safety Foundation wrote in a 2019 article.

Intentional acts even if not malicious are a different story.  In 2012, Steven T. Fay was indicted for manslaughter for the death of his 35-year-old daughter in a plane crash in which he was the pilot. There’s no evidence Fay wanted to kill his daughter, but he was practicing touch-and-go landings at night, in a plane he was not licensed or qualified to fly.

Boeing’s business decisions have contributed to a series of air accidents and incidents over the past decade. That it should face the legal accountability as Fay did, has been obvious to the families of 737 Max victims for quite some time.

The idea is also percolating in the minds of federal law enforcement officers who recently notified Alaska’s flight 1282 passengers that they may be victims of a crime. Then came today’s management shake-up and it appears Boeing is giving some thought to the question of its accountability, and undoubtedly its susceptibility too.

When Stupid is Criminal

Categories: Flying Lessons
Tags: , , , ,

One response to “Is Boeing Management Shakeup Linked to Criminal Investigation?”

  1. Kathryn Creedy says:

    This is a brilliant piece. Thank you, Christine. But, you gave FAA a pass. Perhaps that is for another day. You marched through the many incidents for Boeing’s culpability but the bigger point is that FAA let them get away with it. Yes, some was definitely hiding things from the agency, but equally culpable in my book is FAA and, of course, Congress for giving Boeing the delegating authority. I would love to see an examination of of that. It says to me Boeing didn’t like what FAA was doing so it went to Congress to overrule it. Kathryn Creedy

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Enter to Win

Want to receive some free swag from Christine? Sign up for the mailing list!