Boeing Whistleblower’s Untimely Death Raises Disturbing Questions

Maxene Huiyu
Maxene Huiyu

John Barnett, a former Boeing employee who had raised concerns about the company’s production standards, was discovered deceased in the United States. Barnett, who had dedicated 32 years to Boeing until his retirement in 2017, played a crucial role in a whistleblower lawsuit against the aerospace giant in the days leading up to his death. The news of his passing was confirmed by the Charleston County coroner on Monday, attributing the 62-year-old’s demise to a “self-inflicted” wound on March 9, prompting a police investigation.

Barnett’s career at Boeing included a position as a quality manager at the North Charleston plant responsible for manufacturing the 787 Dreamliner, a cutting-edge long-haul airliner. In 2019, he disclosed to the BBC that workers, facing intense pressure, were intentionally installing sub-standard components on the production line. Additionally, Barnett had uncovered significant flaws in oxygen systems, potentially rendering one in four breathing masks ineffective during emergencies.

His concerns extended to the rushed assembly process compromising safety standards, an assertion vehemently denied by Boeing. Barnett revealed lapses in following procedures to track components, allowing defective parts to be used. He claimed that substandard components were, at times, taken from scrap bins and fitted onto aircraft to prevent production delays.

Boeing refuted Barnett’s allegations, although a 2017 Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) review upheld some of his concerns. The FAA’s investigation confirmed the unknown location of at least 53 “non-conforming” parts in the factory, ordering Boeing to take corrective measures. Regarding the oxygen cylinders issue, Boeing acknowledged identifying faulty oxygen bottles from the supplier in 2017 but denied their installation on aircraft.

Following retirement, Barnett initiated legal action against Boeing, accusing the company of damaging his reputation and impeding his career due to the concerns he raised. Boeing rejected these charges. At the time of his death, Barnett was in Charleston for legal proceedings related to the case. He had recently provided a formal deposition and underwent cross-examination by Boeing’s lawyers and counsel.

Barnett’s demise occurred amid heightened scrutiny of production standards at Boeing and its primary supplier, Spirit Aerosystems. This scrutiny follows a January incident in which an unused emergency exit door detached from a new Boeing 737 Max shortly after takeoff. A preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board suggested that crucial bolts designed to secure the door were missing. Last week, the FAA disclosed multiple instances where Boeing allegedly failed to comply with manufacturing quality control requirements after a six-week audit.

Boeing expressed sadness and condolences to Barnett’s family and friends in response to his passing.