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Boeing reports safety oversight improved, though some engineers remain wary

Aug. 25, 2022 Updated Thu., Aug. 25, 2022 at 5:56 p.m.

Boeing 777 freighters are seen in various stages of assembly at the company’s Everett Production Facility, Wednesday, June 15, 2022.  (Jennifer Buchanan/Seattle Times)
Boeing 777 freighters are seen in various stages of assembly at the company’s Everett Production Facility, Wednesday, June 15, 2022. (Jennifer Buchanan/Seattle Times)
By Dominic Gates Seattle Times

Just shy of 14% of Boeing safety engineers who work on certification of new aircraft on behalf of the FAA perceive interference from management in their work, according to a new survey commissioned by the company.

And almost a quarter expressed concern about retaliation if they reported any such interference.

These are Boeing engineers, typically very experienced subject-matter experts, whose job is to assess the safety of Boeing’s systems and to certify them as safe for the government regulator – with the understanding that they are standing in for and answerable to the Federal Aviation Administration.

The survey aimed to gauge whether Boeing’s safety culture has substantially improved since the two fatal crashes of 737 MAXs in 2018 and 2019.

Boeing, largely allowed to certify the safety of its own product, fell far short on the MAX, leading to the deaths of 346 people.

As Boeing implements a top-down remake of its safety culture, anecdotal reports from individual employees suggest some genuine progress inside the factories.

Improving the independence of this cadre of experienced engineers who work on behalf of the FAA on new airplane designs is perhaps the most critical part of the effort.

The survey showed that 49% of the engineers said the problem of interference by management had eased, while 45% thought it hadn’t changed and 6% thought it worse than before.

Overall, the results don’t offer strong reassurance that Boeing’s safety oversight of its own work is now solid.

Yet, Boeing emphasized the improvement from its last such internal survey in 2019, when 44% of the safety engineers surveyed reported undue pressure from management and 37% expressed concern about potential retaliation if they spoke up.

A survey of a sample of Boeing employees in the oversight organization conducted by the FAA from May through July of last year found that 35% voiced concerns and cited experiences “that indicate the environment does not support (their) independence.”

Tom Galantowicz, who leads the Boeing engineering organization that performs this work, said the new data gathered this spring shows “some progress.”

“We also know that there’s work ahead of us and more improvement to go,” he added.

Culture shift is real

Boeing commissioned a third party, Harvard Business School professor Eugene Soltes, to develop and administer the survey, which was sent to just over 1,000 engineers in the internal oversight group.

Of these 71% filled in the survey, which Soltes said is a “high response rate” for such a project.

Minimizing the 24% of those surveyed who said they are concerned about retaliation for speaking out, he said typically in similar surveys of any large multinational company around 20% of employees will report such fear.

Soltes said those who perceived interference with their work as an issue at Boeing most often cited examples from the past.

He interpreted this as “lingering doubt” among veteran engineers that the Boeing safety culture has truly changed.

“They really want to see evidence,” Soltes said. “They want to hear those stories from others that it’s working.

“They haven’t had the evidence to actually see it necessarily work for themselves yet.”

Galantowicz agreed.

“Shifting the culture, especially of a large company, takes time,” he said. “People want to see it in place to believe that it’s a truly a shift.”

Is revamp working?

Integrity and independence are job requirements for the engineers who stand in for the FAA.

These employees must put safety first, ahead of the business considerations of Boeing managers about cost and schedule.

Last year the FAA complained that Boeing, following an exit of experienced engineers during the pandemic, was appointing to this organization younger employees who lack the required technical expertise.

Still, Galantowicz said the survey participation rate and the willingness of his engineers to report their concerns directly to executives through a newly set-up corporate reporting mechanism speaks to their “passion around the integrity of the system.”

The perception of integrity of this system was shaken by its failures during certification of the MAX.

Technical details about changes to the jet’s flight control system that should have been relayed to FAA safety engineers by their Boeing counterparts were instead largely hidden.

And Boeing’s engineers performing the required safety assessments failed to flag fatal flaws.After the deadly consequences and the economic fallout for the company, top executives have touted a complete overhaul of the safety culture.

Once a week Mike Delaney, Boeing’s newly appointed chief aerospace safety officer, leads a safety review with CEO Dave Calhoun, Chief Engineer Greg Hyslop and other executives.

This push to improve the safety culture has certainly filtered down to some areas inside the assembly plants.

One machinist on the 777 program, who asked not to be named because he spoke without company authorization, said Tuesday that after three depressing years he senses a renewal at the company, and that quality control inside the factory is more stringent than it was before the MAX accidents.

A veteran engineer who works on Boeing’s defense side and who has in the past been very critical of management echoed that judgment.

“The company is working hard on first-time quality,” he said, also speaking without Boeing authorization. “It’s a lot better.”

However, Mike Dostert, a recently retired FAA safety engineer who regularly worked with his Boeing counterparts, said the survey results hardly signal a breakthrough turnaround.

“Why is it taking so long for the corporate culture to adjust to eliminate the problems?” he asked. “After all that has transpired, you’ve still got a quarter of your people who fear retaliation. That’s a terrible result. No one should fear retaliation.”

On the other side of the oversight coin, Dostert said he’s seen more progress in shifting the culture inside the FAA.

He pointed to the FAA’s newly vigorous insistence that Boeing meet required safety standards – a stringency evident in the delayed certification of the 777X and the MAX 10 and in the enforced halt to 787 deliveries for more than a year.

The FAA, he said, “has held the line and pushed Boeing to comply with safety standards.”

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