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David Calhoun, New Boeing CEO, Has His Work Cut Out For Him


A new CEO takes over at Boeing today, and he has a hard job ahead. The company's dealing with the fallout of two 737 Max airplane crashes. Some newly released internal documents show that while the Max was in development, Boeing appears to have hidden safety problems and misled regulators and customers. In Chicago, NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: I'm standing outside of Boeing's corporate headquarters, downtown Chicago. I can't tell you where exactly inside this 36-story building new CEO David Calhoun's office is located, but I can tell you it will likely be buzzing with activity, as he tries to turn the beleaguered aerospace giant around. Among the biggest tasks will be changing a culture that many say turned away from prioritizing engineering and safety to focus more on shareholder value and profits, and internal documents that the company released late last week seem to underscore that culture shift.

SCOTT HAMILTON: I'm just shaking my head and rolling my eyes.

SCHAPER: Scott Hamilton is an aviation industry consultant for the Leeham Company and has been closely watching Boeing for decades. He says he can understand expressing frustrations in the workplace, but...

HAMILTON: In this case, this goes beyond frustrations; this is disdain, this is contempt for the regulators, for some of their customers and even for some of their co-workers.

SCHAPER: The more than 100 pages of emails and internal instant messages show a pattern of deceit, as Boeing employees downplay safety problems with the 737 Max. In one of the most shocking messages, one worker tells another, this plane was designed by clowns who are in turn supervised by monkeys. The documents also detail schemes to hide information about a new flight control system and to mislead regulators so they don't require costly pilot training in a simulator, something that might have prevented deadly Max plane crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia.

NADIA MILLERON: It's horrifying. I feel like I'm living a nightmare. I keep wanting to wake up.

SCHAPER: Nadia Milleron is the mother of Samya Stumo, who was 24 when she was killed in the crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 310 last March.

MILLERON: It's terrible. The company has to change completely in order to actually produce safe aircraft.

SCHAPER: But Milleron doesn't have much faith in new CEO David Calhoun, a private equity executive and decade-long member of Boeing's board.

MILLERON: He cut costs everywhere he could, including firing many engineers. And he has been in that position since 2009. He's not new to the company. He is partially responsible for my daughter's death.

SCHAPER: Boeing has made one significant change and is now recommending simulator training for 737 Max pilots, after insisting for months it wasn't needed. American Airlines 737 pilot Dennis Tajer, a spokesman for the pilots union, applauds the reversal in Boeing's position but is disturbed to discover in the emails and other messages the deception Boeing used.

DENNIS TAJER: We've had several cycles of the trust relationship being gut-punched. And we're pretty good at recovering, but we're getting to a point where enough's enough.

SCHAPER: Rebuilding those relationships with pilots, their airlines and with aviation regulators are among the top challenges facing Boeing's CEO Calhoun, as is restoring the trust of airline passengers, many of whom say they won't fly on a Max, even if regulators clear the troubled plane to fly again. For doing that job, Calhoun will earn a salary of $1.4 million a year, plus a $7 million bonus if and when the Max is recertified.

Meanwhile, the company has announced his predecessor as CEO, Dennis Muilenburg, is walking out with more than $62 million in compensation. In a statement, Boeing says that is what Muilenburg is contractually entitled to receive, but adds he is not getting any severance pay.

David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAE AND CHRISTIAN'S "SWANSONG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.