Boeing, Plane Safety, And Quality Control: How Whistleblowers Protect Us 

For Boeing whistleblowers, the tragedies of witnessing engineering dysfunction and incompetence are both personal and political. In the past three months, two Boeing whistleblowers have tragically lost their lives. John Barnett — a client of Government Accountability Project and quality manager for Boeing – raised internal concerns for years about failed safety standards. Then he began to blow the whistle publicly about serious violations, such as use of substandard parts. Boeing retaliated against Barnett. While trying to hold Boeing accountable in court over multiple years for unlawful reprisals against him, Barnett sacrificed his career, and tragically, his life. Joshua Dean was a former quality auditor at Boeing supplier Spirit AeroSystems, who went public with claims that the company’s leadership ignored manufacturing defects in Boeing’s 737 MAX. He had been fired in April 2023 for pointing out that holes in jet fuselages had been drilled incorrectly. A year later, Dean also tragically passed away. 

Public reporting has illuminated that Boeing has, in recent decades, long struggled with the “problem” of dissent and quality control under its roof. The company has a culture of reprisal. The inability to fix issues that were brought to their attention by their own employees led to numerous deaths. 

Whistleblowers have long acted as quality control mechanisms, holding those in power accountable and speaking truth to power. Whistleblowers warned the company, and the public, of Boeing’s use of defective parts and other safety shortcuts. Unfortunately, plane disasters became a catalyst for air safety instead. Without the public or Congress being aware of the various Boeing controversies, the company could have perhaps kept operating with impunity. 

Who are the whistleblowers? 

In 2019, John Barnett came forward based on his engineering expertise to reveal that Boeing was using defective parts, including oxygen masks. Joshua Dean was one of the first to flag potentially dangerous defects with 737 Max jets in what he called “a culture of not counting defects correctly.” Dean said that Spirit pressured employees not to report defects in order to get planes out of the factory faster. In mid-January a door panel blew off an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 Max 9 in midair, risking the safety of the passengers on board. 

Joe Jacobsen also came forward about malfunctioning software onboard that led directly to crashes, such as the MCAS software. Specifically, the MCAS (Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System) software led to planes taking nosedives due to a faulty attempt to correct flight path and direction. The result was two horrific crashes (and possibly dozens of other, near misses) killing everyone on board – one in Malaysia (2018) and another in Ethiopia (2019). One relative of some of the deceased on the Ethiopia Airlines plane consistently has nightmares and speculations about the last moments of his wife and children as they plunged to the ground. And in 2024 alone, other incidents (up to five in one month) have occurred for far less exotic—but just as problematic–reasons. In the high-speed, high-altitude environment that air travel occurs in, several instances of crashes due to wheels falling off, and doors coming apart, unlocked a new level of horrific, and preventable, air safety failures. 

What is Congress doing? 

In 2000, Congress passed the Wendell H. Ford Aviation Investment and Reform Act for the 21st Century (known as AIR21) to prohibit retaliation against U.S. air carrier and manufacturer employees who blow the whistle on safety issues. This is the law that Barnett was seeking to enforce for Boeing’s reprisal against him for raising safety concerns. But this law needs to be strengthened to ensure that employees are protected and empowered to expose safety vulnerabilities early – including the most serious ones.  

Government Accountability Project worked with Barnett in support of his ongoing whistleblower case. Government Accountability Project has also worked with other leading whistleblower organizations, whistleblower advocates, and airline whistleblowers themselves, for Congress to reform AIR21. This law, in turn, desperately needs to be strengthened to be effective.  

Amending AIR21 would add important, necessary protections for whistleblowers, such as anti-gag provisions that would keep whistleblowers from being silenced. Protections would also include a statute of limitations that would stop companies from slowing down the arbitration process when a whistleblower tries to work within the system. These process-focused, technical fixes are crucial to AIR21’s functionality moving forward. In the nearly quarter-century since AIR21 was passed and with the information about Boeing safety lapses through whistleblower John Barnett, reforms are sorely needed.  

Many members of Congress made public statements on the need for oversight and action, and there is intense public interest about Boeing’s recent safety issues. There is also a widespread understanding of what some of those key changes should look like by whistleblower advocates on the ground. 

What are potential reforms? 

Based on ongoing advocacy work and deep decades-long subject-matter expertise, Government Accountability Project has led a coalition of whistleblower advocates in drafting the following recommendations: 

  • Barring Nondisclosure Agreements that waive free speech rights and due process. An “anti-gag” shield enacted by Congress would reflect the same protections that more recent whistleblower laws afford those who speak up, and are crucial for airline whistleblowers as well.  
  • Expanding the statute of limitations, so that whistleblowers who experience retaliation have a reasonable amount of time to file their claim. 
  • Allowing whistleblowers to have their case heard in federal court rather than relying solely on relief coming through the years-long administrative processes. If the Labor Department takes more than a reasonable amount of time to issue a decision, whistleblowers should not have to remain in limbo indefinitely – just like for Americans in many other situations, the courts should be the place to find justice.  
  • Filling out some remaining coverage gaps that exist in the law, so that all those who may have evidence vital to prevent or properly investigate air safety tragedies have whistleblower protections.  
  • Educating employees – and managers – about their rights and responsibilities under AIR21.  

How can you support whistleblower advocates today? 

You can support system reform that provides greater protection to the whistleblowers who protect all of us, from the ground up to the systems level. Donate today to help us continue the fight in honor the sacrifice of those airline safety whistleblowers no longer with us, and to ensure that others will choose to speak up in the future.