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Boeing’s faulty airliners and the mystery death of a whistleblower


BOEING whistleblower John Barnett has died in an apparent suicide, despite telling his family that if he died suddenly, it would not be because of suicide. Boeing’s former employee had flagged up safety concerns with the aerospace giant on many occasions and was in Charleston, South Carolina, to testify in a court case against them, a moment he had waited seven years for. The alarm was raised when he failed to show up to give evidence for the third day of his deposition.

He was found dead in his orange 2015 Dodge Ram truck from a gunshot wound to his right temple outside a Charleston hotel on Saturday March 9. Charleston County Coroner Bobbi Jo O’Neal said that Barnett had died ‘from what appears to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound’.

The 62-year-old had worked for Boeing for 32 years as a quality manager for the 787 Dreamliner. He retired in 2017 on health grounds and claimed he was suffering from stress caused by a hostile work environment. He then launched a legal action against the aircraft manufacturer.

Mr Barnett claimed that faulty parts were deliberately fitted to planes by production workers, and that a test on emergency oxygen systems showed a failure rate of 25 per cent. During an emergency, one in four breathing masks did not work, he said. He also accused the firm of using substandard parts from scrap bins and identified a fire risk after he found metal shavings had fallen near electrical wiring in some planes. ‘When you mix metal slivers with electrical components, it’s a recipe for disaster,’ he said.

He flagged his concerns to Boeing’s managers but said no action was taken. A review by the US civil aviation regulator, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), has since upheld his concerns.

Last week, it was reported that during a six-week audit, the FAA found multiple instances where the Boeing 737-9 Max aircraft failed to comply with manufacturing quality control requirements; they failed 33 of 89 products.

Faulty Boeing planes have made headlines all year. In January, a door plug blew out of Alaska Airlines flight 1282 carrying 188 passengers from Portland, Oregon to Ontario, California. The Boeing 737 Max-9 depressurised and the plane turned back. The US Department of Justice has opened a criminal investigation as to why four bolts were missing from the plane’s door but in a letter, Boeing’s executive vice president Ziad Ojakli told Congress that staff cannot find records for work done on the door panel, and surveillance footage had been overwritten.

This month has already seen six serious incidents. On March 4, passengers on a United Airlines Boeing 737-900 travelling from Texas to Florida witnessed ‘bright orange flames shooting out of an engine’ after an explosion. On March 8, a United Airlines Boeing 737 Max carrying 160 passengers and six crew slid off the runway while landing, due to a malfunction in the landing gear. In the same week, a tyre fell off a Boeing 777 which had just taken off from San Francisco bound for Japan. The tyre landed on cars in a parking lot below. Luckily, no one was killed or injured. On March 11, LATAM’s Boeing 787 Dreamliner suddenly plunged during a flight between Australia and New Zealand. Fifty passengers were injured as they hit the roof with such force that panels were broken. Another United Airlines Boeing 777-300, flying from Sydney to San Francisco, had to turn around mid-flight due to hydraulic liquid pouring out of landing gear. On March 22, the right-hand engine shut down on a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737-800 from Fort Lauderdale to Houston. Flight WN-1575 returned to Fort Lauderdale 16 minutes after departure.

Critics say the failings are due to greed at the cost of safety. Boeing, once known for its impeccable safety record and as the ‘Queen of the skies’, has presided over several major disasters which have killed hundreds. Two Boeing 737 Max-8 aircraft crashed in 2018 and 2019 killing a total of 346 passengers and crew. The first was Indonesia’s Lion Air flight 610 passenger jet, a new plane which on October 29, 2018, crashed 13 minutes after take-off. All 189 passengers died and at first, Lion Air and its pilots were blamed. However, black box recordings showed there was a failure of a sensor which sent false information to the stabilising system causing the pilots to lose control. The manoeuvring characteristics augmentation system (MCAS) caused the crash, and it was a system that the pilots had never heard of; they had no idea it existed so when it failed they did not know how to compensate.

This was no oversight; the information had been deliberately withheld and documents shared with US Congress show that Boeing refused to provide simulator training for MCAS to pilots because of additional cost. Post-crash, the FAA failed to ground the plane, and Dennis Muilenburg, CEO of Boeing at the time, told media the 737 Max was safe.

It was not, and just 19 weeks later, on March 10, 2019, Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 from Addis Ababa to Nairobi, Kenya, crashed shortly after take-off killing 150 passengers and crew. No bodies were recovered and Muilenburg tried again to blame pilot error, but it was MCAS again. This time pilots had followed Boeing’s newly issued advice. They turned off the system, to no effect.

Boeing knew there were concerns about the system. A memo from employees to bosses sent in 2013, the year they began building the Max, raised concerns about the MCAS system. They were ignored.

The crashes triggered the biggest investigation in aviation history led by Democrat Peter DeFazio, a former US Air Force reserve.

The FAA still failed to ground the 737 Max. It said it was waiting for data but conducted a transport airplane risk assessment methodology (TARAM) report and calculated that without the problem being rectified, there could be one fatal crash every two years which would make the Max the most dangerous modern jet ever built. Boeing said they would fix the software and claimed that it was not possible to predict the timing of the crashes. The FAA agreed.

The Chinese decided to ground the aircraft. The UK, Australia, Netherlands, Germany and many other countries followed suit. Once the problem was identified as the same which had caused the Lion Air flight to crash, President Trump did what the FAA had failed to do and grounded the plane until further notice. Eventually, the 737 Max was grounded for 20 months while the MCAS system was revised and cleared by the FAA to fly in 2020. In 2021, the US Department of Justice charged Boeing with criminal conspiracy to defraud the FAA and Boeing paid the FAA a $2.5billion fine, which allowed them to avoid prosecution.

Until Boeing merged with aerospace manufacturer McDonnell Douglas in 1996, they had a proud history. Phil Condit became their new CEO and his business plan was to increase the share price – at any cost, it seems. John Barnett had worked for Boeing for around ten years by then and was proud of the company’s safety-first ethos.

Then things changed. Mr Barnett explained: ‘We had a whole new set of bosses and to see the McDonnell Douglas executives bring their business plan into the Boeing company upset a lot of us. We knew then that that was a bad plan. Before the merger, safety was a priority. After the merger, every time I raised my hand and said we have a problem, they would attack the messenger and ignore the message.’

Share prices increased whilst whistleblowers were fired or moved and, according to Barnett, no one was allowed to document problems so that there was no official record.

Fighting the system took its toll on Mr Barnett. His brother Rodney said: ‘He was suffering from PTSD and anxiety attacks as a result of being subjected to the hostile work environment.’ His wife died in November 2022, but he had a supportive extended family.

He was not suicidal. A close family friend, Jennifer, told ABC News that Mr Barnett thought that he could wind up dead. She asked him if he was scared about his upcoming case, and he allegedly said: ‘I ain’t scared but if anything happens to me it’s not suicide.’

Mr Barnett’s lawyers, Robert Turkewitz and Brian Knowles, released a statement which said: ‘John was a brave, honest man of the highest integrity. We have rarely met someone with a more sincere and forthright character.’

Boeing’s shares have dropped by 25 per cent since the beginning of the year, demonstrating that cutting corners is not good for business. However, Muilenburg was rewarded for presiding over two disasters. He resigned after the initial Senate hearing into the two fatal crashes, and received stock and pension awards worth $62million.

Boeing deny any wrongdoing.

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Sally Beck
Sally Beck
Sally Beck is a freelance journalist with 30 years of experience in writing for national newspapers and magazines. She has reported on vaccines since the controversy began with the MMR in 1998.

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