Rantz: It’s time for Washington to worry about Boeing surviving

Mar 17, 2024, 6:02 PM | Updated: 6:31 pm

Image: A Boeing 737 Max 10 airliner taxis past a hanger on the flight line before its first flight ...

A Boeing 737 Max 10 airliner taxis past a hanger on the flight line before its first flight at Renton Municipal Airport on June 18, 2021 in Renton, Washington. Boeing controversy after controversy may threaten the company's survival in Washington. Now, it's dealing with an emergency landing, nosedive, and a Boeing whistleblower suicide. (Photo: Stephen Brashear, Getty Images)

(Photo: Stephen Brashear, Getty Images)

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has expanded its criminal inquiry into Boeing, and now is the time for Washington to worry about the company’s survival. If Boeing fails, the state of Washington will feel the pain. 

The news keeps getting worse. Another Boeing fuselage panel disconnected during flight. There may be loose switches on the pilot seats of Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft that caused a sudden nosedive. A Boeing emergency landing in Los Angeles caused a ruckus. The Boeing whistleblower death is suspicious, to say the least. Then, there’s the allegations that the company withheld documents during an NTSB investigation. And now, the Biden DOJ convened a Seattle grand jury and started sending out subpoenas.

This isn’t about one Boeing controversy, but several. There’s not much more bad news the company can take before the company’s suffering impacts Washington state’s economy.

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What happened with the Boeing fuselage this time?

The latest Boeing fuselage panel debacle happened last Friday on a 25-year-old Boeing 737-800. 

When a United Airlines flight from San Francisco landed in Medford, Oregon, airport crews noticed the external fuselage panel was missing during a post-flight inspection. The missing panel was spotted by the crew laying next to the landing gear. According to reports, the pilots did not notice any issues during the flight and there were no injuries.

More from Oregon: Boeing plane found to have missing panel after flight lands in Medford

It’s not clear how this happened, but a Rogue Valley International Medford Airport spokesperson and the U.S. Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) said there would be an investigation. Prior to this latest incident, FAA head Mike Whitaker testified in front of congress, saying 737 Max aircraft inspections revealed “the quality system issues at Boeing were unacceptable and require further scrutiny.” 

An American Airlines Boeing 777 emergency landing also garnered some attention last week. A spokesperson said “the pilot reported a possible mechanical issue prior to landing.” No one was injured.

Unfortunately for Boeing, these were not the only incidents in-flight earning press.

Why did a Boeing flight suddenly nosedive?

Last Monday, a LATAM Boeing 787-9 flight from Australia to New Zealand suddenly nosedived. Around 50 passengers were injured, with an in-flight cell phone recording showing terrified and dazed passengers. Ten passengers and three members of the flight crew had to be taken to the hospital upon landing.

The Wall Street Journal learned a flight attendant in the cockpit inadvertently triggered a switch on the back of one of the pilot seats. The switch allows the seat to move forward and backward. The Washington Post explains that, “Were the switch to get stuck while someone was sitting in the seat, it could press their body against the plane’s controls.”

In a maintenance warning to airlines last week after the incident, the company said if part of the seat switch is loose the cover over the top of it may cause it to jam, “resulting in unintended seat movement,” according to the report.

“We are recommending operators perform an inspection at the next maintenance opportunity,” the company said in a statement.

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The Boeing whistleblower suicide raises eyebrows

A Boeing whistleblower death raised suspicions and conspiracies last week. 

John Barnett was found dead in his car with suspected self-inflicted gunshot wound to his head. The purported suicide occurred on the same day he was set to testify against Boeing in a case seven years in the making. One day earlier, Barnett was questioned by Boeing lawyers.

More on Barnett: Boeing whistleblower found dead as the airline manufacturer’s issues snowball

Barnett’s whistleblower complaint stemmed from fitting sub-standard parts onto the 787 Dreamliner at its North Charleston, South Carolina, plant. Workers, he alleged, were under constant pressure to push products off the assembly line for delivery. He also alleged Boeing did not address the faulty oxygen systems. He said one quarter of the oxygen masks were not working as designed during an emergency.

Comments by a woman identified by WCIV-TV as a “close family friend” of Barnett, started to raise suspicions. She claimed that Barnett told her that “… if anything happens to me it’s not suicide.” The friend, identified only as “Jennifer,” thinks an unidentified person or persons “didn’t like what he had to say” and hoped to “shut him up.”

There’s no actual evidence of wrongdoing and a friend’s reaction to a suicide and interpretation of comments that haven’t been verified is not especially noteworthy. Barnett may have been suffering without telling anyone, and decided to, tragically, take his life. But the timing of the suicide is enough to push people to speculate.

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Expanding the criminal inquiry

Boeing is now facing an expanded criminal inquiry by the DOJ, The New York Times and Bloomberg reported late Friday. The inquiry stems from the original fuselage panel that tore off an Alaska Airlines flight after takeoff on Jan. 5

“A (Seattle) grand jury could be asked to decide whether a criminal prosecution is warranted. A likely focus would be repairs to the Alaska Airlines plane’s rivets, which are often used to join and secure parts on planes, by workers at the Boeing plant in Renton,” reported The New York Times.

This news comes days after the NTSB alleged Boeing withheld the names of staff that were meant to be interviewed for the investigation. The company has since said they’ve turned over everything that was requested. According to the NTSB, Boeing also destroyed video footage of the Alaska Airlines aircraft being worked on. The video was apparently “overwritten.” 

“To date, we still do not know who performed the work to open, reinstall, and close the door plug on the accident aircraft. Boeing has informed us that they are unable to find the records documenting this work,” NTSB chair Jennifer Homendy wrote to the Senate Committee on Commerce Science and Transportation.

What do these problems mean for Washington?

Boeing’s influence on the local economy, with facilities in King, Snohomish, and Pierce counties, cannot be overstated.

Last year, post-pandemic hiring was brisk. As of February, Boeing employed 66,792 workers in the state, the company’s largest footprint. They are also responsible for thousands of other local jobs with contractors it works with. The company says it “contributed more than $200 million to Washington’s economy through state and local taxes” in 2022 alone.

The economic reality means Washington has a lot to lose with Boeing woes. And the second passengers feel too unsafe to fly in Boeing-manufactured planes, the more the pressure on airlines to ditch them for Airbus. And airlines are already feeling the pain, with Southwest Airlines shares down 19% as it deals with safety concerns. Boeing is the sole aircraft provider for Southwest. Planes are not being delivered as promised to neither Southwest nor Alaska Airlines, according to CNBC. Delta Airlines said it would delay the hiring of new pilots over Boeing delays, as well. The delays are due to Boeing addressing safety concerns.

This isn’t just one Boeing controversy. The crises are adding up. Now is the time to wonder what the state of Washington would look like if Boeing started losing orders. We got a taste of it when the FAA ordered 777 aircrafts grounded in 2021. Given the new incidents, and horrific press, it’s not unthinkable that flyers may start to think twice about hopping on a Boeing plane. And if that happens in a meaningful way, it will destroy Boeing, and tens of thousands of local jobs with it.

Listen to the Jason Rantz Show on weekday afternoons from 3-6 p.m. on KTTH 770 AM (HD Radio 97.3 FM HD-Channel 3). Subscribe to the podcast here. Follow Jason on X, formerly known as TwitterInstagram, and  Facebook.

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Rantz: It’s time for Washington to worry about Boeing surviving