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Experts: Boeing's safety culture is broken and defective airplanes are being put out

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Aviation safety experts and whistleblowers say that more than five years after two 737 MAX plane crashes that killed 346 people, little has changed at Boeing. The safety culture is still broken, and the company is putting out defective airplanes. Now, that was the gist of two U.S. Senate hearings on Boeing yesterday, as David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Investigations into Boeing's airplane design flaws, production problems and safety lapses have been numerous over the last several years. The latest crisis of an airplane door plug panel flying off an Alaska Airlines 737 MAX mid-flight, resulted in a Boeing management shakeup, but concerns remain. Here's Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz.

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TED CRUZ: Flying commercial remains the safest way to travel, but understandably, recent incidents have left the flying public worried. The perception is things are getting worse.

SCHAPER: A panel of independent aviation experts assembled by the FAA spent a year looking into Boeing's safety management systems and culture and found them lacking. At a Senate Commerce Committee hearing yesterday, three of those experts testified that they found that there's a huge disconnect between what Boeing executives say about their commitment to safety and the reality Boeing employees experience on the company's airplane factory floors.

JAVIER DE LUIS: They hear, safety is our No. 1 priority, but what they see is that that's only true as long as your production milestones are met, and at that point, it's push out the door as fast you can.

SCHAPER: That's Javier de Luis, an aerospace engineer and a lecturer at MIT.

DE LUIS: We found this disconnect to be present at almost all levels and at all worksites that we visited.

SCHAPER: De Luis adds that Boeing employees have little confidence that anything would be done if they report safety concerns.

DE LUIS: And there was a very real fear of retribution and payback if you held your ground, and obviously, those are things that are just not compatible with any sort of safety culture.

SCHAPER: A Boeing whistleblower emphasized that point during a second Senate hearing. Longtime company engineer Sam Salehpour accuses Boeing of taking shortcuts to speed up production, putting the structural integrity of some airplanes at risk.

SAM SALEHPOUR: Effectively, they are putting out defective airplanes.

SCHAPER: Salehpour says for years, he repeatedly tried flagging the problems.

SALEHPOUR: I was ignored, I was told not to create delays. I was told, frankly, to shut up.

SCHAPER: Boeing refutes Salehpour's allegations of dangerous manufacturing deficiencies. Engineering executives held a preemptive media briefing Monday, going into great technical detail on how their planes are put together and undergo rigorous safety testing. Here's engineering vice president Lisa Fahl.

LISA FAHL: Our fleet's assessments and performance is our No. 1 priority, to make sure that our flying aircraft are safe.

SCHAPER: As for the safety culture, Boeing says in a statement, quote, "we take the FAA review panel's detailed assessment to heart and will act on their findings," adding that they have taken steps to foster a safety culture that empowers and encourages all employees to raise their voice. The company's chief financial officer also recently acknowledged that Boeing has made mistakes, saying, quote, "for years, we prioritized the movement of the airplane through the factory over getting it done right, and that's got to change." But for Javier de Luis, it's odd that Boeing executives are only getting that message now.

DE LUIS: I would have thought that they would have gotten it five years ago.

SCHAPER: That's when de Luis' sister, Graciela, died in one of those 737 MAX plane crashes. For NPR News, I'm David Schaper. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.