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Another Boeing whistleblower says he faced retaliation for reporting 'shortcuts'

A Boeing 787 Dreamliner accelerates down the runway during its first flight in December, 2009 in Everett, Wash.
Stephen Brashear
Getty Images
A Boeing 787 Dreamliner accelerates down the runway during its first flight in December, 2009 in Everett, Wash.

WASHINGTON — Longtime Boeing engineer Sam Salehpour went public this week with alarming claims about two of the company's jets, including the 787 Dreamliner.

In a virtual meeting with reporters, Salehpour said Boeing was so eager to meet its production goals that it took "shortcuts" when it fastened together the carbon-composite fuselage of the 787. That could dramatically shorten the life of the plane, he warned, potentially causing it to break apart in mid-flight.

"I'm doing this not because I want Boeing to fail, but because I want it to succeed, and prevent crashes from happening," Salehpour said. "The truth is, Boeing can't keep going the way it is. It needs to do a little bit better, I think."

Boeing disputes Salehpour's claims, calling them "inaccurate" and saying the company is "fully confident" in the 787.

Salehpour joins a growing list of current and former Boeing employees who say the company has ignored their concerns — and then retaliated against them when they spoke up. The company denies that, but aviation experts say Boeing needs to do a better job of listening to its employees.

The latest allegations come as Boeing is struggling to rebuild trust with airlines and the public after a door plug panel blew out in midair from a 737 Max 9 in January.

That incident has already forced CEO Dave Calhoun to announce he will depart at the end of the year. And it prompted the company's Chief Financial Officer, Brian West, to acknowledge that Boeing has made mistakes.

"For years, we prioritized the movement of the airplane through the factory over getting it done right. And that's got to change," West said at an investor conference last month. Boeing's leaders also need to do a better job of listening to its workforce, he said.

Boeing 787 Dreamliner fuselages during production at the company's manufacturing facility in North Charleston, S.C. in 2022.
Logan Cyrus / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
Boeing 787 Dreamliner fuselages during production at the company's manufacturing facility in North Charleston, S.C. in 2022.

A 'disconnect' between Boeing's leaders and the factory floor

In its statement about the latest allegations, Boeing said all employees are encouraged "to speak up when issues arise. Retaliation is strictly prohibited at Boeing."

But independent experts charged with evaluating the company's safety practices say that's not how many Boeing employees see it.

"You cannot have a safety culture where the people that are doing the work don't believe what they're hearing," said Javier de Luis, a lecturer in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

De Luis's sister Graziella died in the crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 in 2019. De Luis served onan expert panel convened by the Federal Aviation Administration after the crash of that Boeing 737 Max 8 jet, and another one the year before, that killed 346 people in total.

De Luis says the panel found a "disconnect" between Boeing's management and the factory floor.

"It's one thing to hear, 'yes, speak up if you see anything wrong.' And then you go and talk to the folks that are doing the work. And they say, 'yeah, but my buddy spoke up and next thing he knew, he was being transferred out, or being given write ups for minor things,'" de Luis said.

Other whistleblowers say they faced retaliation

Former Boeing mechanic Davin Fischer says he spoke up — and paid a steep price for it.

Fischer worked for Boeing as a mechanic at the factory in Renton, Wash. where the company builds the 737 Max. He says Boeing's leaders were constantly pushing to speed up production.

"Hey, we need to go faster, faster, faster," Fischer said. "They cared more about shareholders and investors than they did planes, their employees, anything."

When Fischer finally pushed back, he says he was demoted in retaliation, and then fired from the company in 2019. Fischer says many of his friends who still work at Boeing are afraid to speak out.

"People there are scared, a hundred percent," he said. "Because they don't want to get fired."

There's also the example of John Barnett, a longtime quality manager who blew the whistle on Boeing in 2019, alleging that the company was covering up serious defects with the 787 Dreamliner.

"I'm not gonna lie, it's been rough on me. It's been rough on my family. I'm still dealing with issues. I'm still having anxiety attacks, PTSD," Barnett said in a 2019 interview with Ralph Nader. (Nader's grandniece, Samya Stumo, was killed in the crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302).

Barnett said his managers at Boeing retaliated against him by docking his pay and creating a hostile environment, eventually forcing him into early retirement.

"It's taken a serious mental and emotional toll on me. But you know, I want to try very hard to keep the focus on the safety of the airplane. That's what my story is about," Barnett said. "It keeps me up at night. I can't sleep. It's taken a heck of a toll on me."

Barnett filed a complaint against Boeing for wrongful termination. On the third day of depositions in that case last month, Barnett was found dead in his truck of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound, according to police in South Carolina.

Latest whistleblower says Boeing must account for its mistakes

The latest Boeing whistleblower, engineer Sam Salehpour, alleges that he faced retaliation as well. His lawyer, Debra Katz, says Salehpour brought his concerns to managers repeatedly.

"Initially, he was just told to shut up. Then he was told he was a problem. Then he was excluded from meetings," Katz said. "He was barred from speaking to structural engineers. He was barred from speaking to mathematicians and others to help him understand the data. And at one point, his boss threatened him with physical violence."

Katz says Salehpour reported the threat to human resources. That's when Boeing moved him from the 787 to a different plane. Still, Salehpour insists he's not angry.

"Despite the treatment and retaliation I have experienced in the company, I'm not bitter," Salehpour told reporters this week. "Boeing has to realize that implementing a real safety culture moving forward also means accounting for, admitting the mistakes and correcting the mistakes that have been made over 20 years."

Salehpour will have another chance to share his story next week, when he's scheduled to testify before a Senate subcommittee on Wednesday.

Boeing has been invited too, but it's more likely that someone from the company will testify at a later date.

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