Boeing whistleblower found dead in US

  • By Theo Leggett
  • Business Correspondent, BBC News

image source, Good pictures

A former Boeing employee who raised concerns about the company's manufacturing quality has been found dead in the US.

John Barnett worked for Boeing for 32 years until his retirement in 2017.

In the days leading up to his death, he was testifying in a whistleblower case against the company.

Boeing said it was saddened to hear of Mr Barnett's passing. The Charleston County Coroner confirmed his death to the BBC on Monday.

It said the 62-year-old died of “self-inflicted injuries” on March 9 and police were investigating.

Mr Barnett worked for American Airlines for 32 years, until retiring in 2017 due to ill health.

Since 2010, he has worked as a quality manager at the North Charleston plant, which built the 787 Dreamliner, a state-of-the-art aircraft used primarily on long-haul routes.

He also said he discovered serious problems with oxygen systems, meaning one in four breathing masks would not work in an emergency.

Soon after starting work in South Carolina, the push to build the new plane said he was concerned the assembly process was rushed and safety was compromised, which the company denied.

image source, John Barnett

image caption,

John Barnett was a former quality control manager at Boeing

He later told the BBC that workers had failed to follow procedures intended to track parts through the factory, causing defective components to disappear.

In some cases, substandard parts are removed from scrap bins and fitted to aircraft built to prevent delays in the production line.

He said tests of the emergency oxygen systems to be fitted to the 787 showed a 25% failure rate, meaning one in four would fail to deploy in a real-life emergency.

Mr Barnett said he alerted managers to his concerns but no action was taken.

Boeing denied his claims. However, a 2017 review by US regulator the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) upheld some of Mr Barnett's concerns.

It established that the whereabouts of at least 53 “non-compliant” parts were unknown at the factory and were considered lost. Boeing was ordered to take corrective action.

On the oxygen cylinders issue, the company said in 2017 that it had “improperly sorted some oxygen cylinders received from the supplier”. But it denied that any of them were actually installed on the plane.

After retiring, he embarked on a protracted legal action against the company.

She accused him of defaming her character and interfering with her career because of the problems she pointed out — allegations Boeing denied.

At the time of his death, Mr. Barnett was in Charleston for legal interviews related to the case.

Last week, he gave a formal deposition examined by Boeing's lawyers before being cross-examined by his own attorney.

He was due for further questioning on Saturday. As he did not turn up, an inquiry was held at his hostel.

He was later found dead in a lorry in the hotel car park.

Speaking to the BBC, his lawyer described his death as “tragic”.

Boeing said in a statement: “We are saddened by Mr. Barnett's passing and our thoughts are with his family and friends.”

His death comes at a time when manufacturing standards are under intense scrutiny at both Boeing and its main supplier, Spirit Aerosystems.

It follows an incident where an unused emergency exit door exploded on a brand new Boeing 737 Max plane shortly after takeoff from Portland International Airport.

A preliminary report by the US National Transportation Safety Board suggested that four key bolts designed to hold the door securely in place were not fitted.

Last week, the FAA said a six-week audit of the company found “numerous instances where the company allegedly failed to comply with manufacturing quality control requirements.”

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