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Boeing retaliated against its own engineers working for FAA, union says

By Dominic Gates, Los Angeles Times
Published: April 24, 2024, 7:50am

Boeing’s white-collar union alleged Tuesday that company management retaliated against engineers overseeing design work on behalf of the Federal Aviation Administration, heightening concerns about a self-regulation regime that’s come under renewed fire since Jan. 5, when a fuselage panel blew out midair.

In 2022, as Boeing worked to integrate new avionics packages into its 777 and 787 widebody aircraft, two of its engineers insisted the company needed to reevaluate prior engineering work completed on the two aircraft. The engineering union contends Boeing managers objected to this on the grounds that it would add costs and slow production.

After the FAA backed the engineers about how the work should be performed and the dispute was settled, in mid-2023 Boeing gave both men negative performance reviews, which cuts pay raises and promotion prospects.

The two “did the right thing and stuck to their guns despite heavy pressure from Boeing, and then got hit with career-damaging performance reviews,” said Rich Plunkett, the union’s director of strategic development. “This helps show why Boeing doesn’t have a healthy safety culture.”

The union said one of the engineers quit Boeing over the way he was treated; it’s appealing the performance downgrade to management on behalf of the other.

Boeing denies the charge of retaliation.

“After an extensive review of documentation and interviewing more than a dozen witnesses, our investigators found no evidence of retaliation or interference,” spokesperson Bobbie Egan said Tuesday. “We have determined the allegations are unsubstantiated.”

“We have zero tolerance for retaliation and encourage our employees to speak up when they see an issue,” Egan said.

If proven, the union allegations would undercut Boeing’s recent insistence that it prioritizes safety over cost and schedule considerations and maintains an open culture that protects employees who flag safety issues.

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The union, the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace, SPEEA, has filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board demanding access to the report of the internal Boeing investigation that concluded the negative reviews did not amount to interfering in the oversight work of the two engineers.

Boeing said it is “looking into the union’s requests” but added that investigations into interference claims are typically confidential.

“Providing the report to any party outside the FAA would be a departure from our standard practice, “ Boeing said.

Eyes of the FAA

More than 1,000 engineers inside Boeing are authorized to act as the FAA’s eyes in overseeing work. They are legally required to have “a commitment to safety above all other priorities” and so must be independent and free of interference from management concerns about added cost and schedule delays.

But after the two deadly 737 Max crashes five years ago, some of these engineers alleged management during the Max’s development had interfered to limit safety testing.

That coupled with the failure of this internal oversight organization to flag the obvious flaws in the new flight control software that led to the crashes raised serious doubts about Boeing’s ability to certify its own work.

Congress subsequently began to reverse the yearslong trend of delegating more of the FAA’s safety oversight to Boeing itself.

After a chain of quality lapses last year and then the fuselage panel blowout on an Alaska Airlines 737 Max in January, Boeing leadership said it would revamp its safety reporting systems and has repeatedly insisted that all employees can raise safety concerns without fear of retaliation.

In February, the report of an FAA-appointed panel of independent aviation experts flagged concerns that the employees who represent the FAA fear raising safety issues because Boeing’s internal safety reporting systems fails to ensure “open communication and non-retaliation.”

The findings of that report were highlighted just last week in a hearing before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. One finding was that some employees did not receive a raise they had been expecting after bringing up safety concerns.

After that hearing, Boeing said retaliation is strictly prohibited.

“Boeing can tell Congress and the media all it wants about how ‘retaliation is strictly prohibited,’” said Plunkett. “But our union is fighting retaliation cases on a regular basis.”

Following FAA guidelines

The job of the Boeing engineers authorized to work on behalf of the FAA is to check on the work of company engineers as they develop designs and instruct them what must be accomplished to get those designs approved as compliant with regulations.

The union said when overseeing the 777 and 787 avionics integration in 2022, the two engineers insisted the company reevaluate prior engineering calculations, citing an FAA advisory document updated in 2013 that provided guidelines on how to obtain airworthiness approval for such work.

An FAA advisory typically outlines a standard way of achieving compliance. It’s not mandatory and does not constitute a regulation.

According to the union, Boeing managers “strongly objected” to the conclusion that the prior work should be redone, “saying that going back to run calculations using the new assumptions would cost money and cause production delays.”

Eventually, after six months of back and forth, the FAA backed the two engineers and Boeing had to redo the analysis.

Subsequently, however, “when they came up for their next performance reviews, the two engineers received identical negative evaluations,” the union said.

SPEEA said that when its staff met with Boeing officials on the matter, “the manager of the two engineers admitted that he had rated them both poorly at the request of the 777 and 787 managers who had been forced to resubmit their work.”

Still, Boeing refused to change the performance evaluations.

While one of the engineers chose to leave Boeing, the other filed a complaint in the company’s “Speak Up” reporting system alleging retaliation.

In a meeting with the engineer, accompanied by a SPEEA official, Boeing labor relations personnel told him that his complaint “did not meet the legal threshold of interference, nor the legal definition of retaliation, and as a result, they were closing his case,” the union said.

Because that internal complaint implied interference with an FAA designee, Boeing had to file a report on the incident with the safety agency. As it appeals the performance downgrade, the union now seeks access to that report.

In 2022, responding to Congress, the FAA introduced new policies to prevent “undue pressure” on the engineers working on its behalf at aviation manufacturers.

The new regulations require Boeing to monitor for, report and investigate all allegations of interference and to report the results to the FAA. The agency now has the SPEEA charges.

“The FAA is investigating these allegations,” spokesperson Ian Gregor said Tuesday.