Boeing chief executive David Calhoun faced an onslaught of criticism during an 18 June Senate committee hearing, with lawmakers accusing the leader of failing to fix longstanding quality problems.

Senator Richard Blumenthal, chair of the subcommittee holding the meeting, also insists grounds exist for the US Department of Justice (DOJ) to prosecute Boeing for violating a 2021 deferred prosecution agreement.

“There is mounting evidence that the deferred prosecution agreement… has been violated,” Blumenthal says. “There is near-overwhelming evidence, in my view as former prosecutor, that prosecution should be pursued.”

David Calhoun

Source: Aaron Schwartz/NurPhoto/Shutterstock

Chief executive David Calhoun

Earlier this year, the DOJ said Boeing had failed to adequately implement an ethics and compliance programme and other requirements under the 2021 agreement, which Boeing signed to avoid prosecution for criminal conspiracy charges related to the 737 Max’s certification. The move came after investigators said Boeing production problems caused a 737 Max 9’s door-plug to blow out during a January flight.

The DOJ said it is considering whether to press forward with prosecution but has not disclosed a decision.

The Homeland Security & Government Affairs Committee’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations held the 19 June hearing, titled “Boeing’s Broken Safety Culture”. Family members of people killed when two 737 Max 8s dove into the earth in 2018 and 2019 attended.

As the hearing began, Calhoun stood and faced the families. “I would like to apologise on behalf of all our Boeing associates… for your losses,” he says. “I apologise for the grief that we have caused.”

Most of the 2h hearing involved senators laying into Calhoun, who spoke briefly at times, defending the company and insisting Boeing has taken every action possible to ensure the safety and quality of its jets.

Several senators revived criticism that Boeing leaders and Calhoun have prioritised short-term financial results and stock price at the expense of employees, workplace culture, quality and safety.

Missouri Senator Josh Hawley had particularly sharp words, saying Calhoun and Boeing’s management team have been “strip mining” the company and “cutting corners… for profit, shareholder value”.

Calhoun pushed back, telling Hawley, “I don’t recognise any of the Boeing you described”.

Boeing has ”revamped our engineering effort at large”, implemented a safety management system and taken steps to encourage employees to raise safety concerns, Calhoun says, adding that the airframer has been rewarding workers who voice concerns.

Additionally, he notes Boeing has significantly slowed production following the Max 9 door-plug incident in an effort to shore up quality and safety.

“Our culture is far from perfect but we are taking action and we are making progress,” he says.

Calhoun adds that Boeing employees are now instructed to “stop the line” in cases when components are unavailable for installation at the proper time during assembly. In the past, if components were missing – they frequently were amid the supply chain troubles of recent years – Boeing often pushed 737s down the line anyway, installing the parts later. Boeing executives have said such “travelled work” can open the assembly process to errors.

Blumenthal criticises Boeing’s recent management changes, saying the moves just shifted existing employees into new roles, a form of “management musical chairs”.

In response, Calhoun says the company chose its leaders based on their significant aircraft industry experience.

In March, Boeing disclosed an executive overhaul that included naming chief operating officer Stephanie Pope as the new CEO of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, succeeding Stan Deal; Pope remains as chief operating officer.

Additionally, it said Calhoun – who took over in 2020 with a mandate to pull Boeing out of its first 737 Max crisis – will leave the company at end-2024, to be replaced by a yet-undetermined successor.

Steve Mollenkopf also became Boeing’s new board chair, replacing Larry Kellner.