Boeing top brass stand down amid safety turbulence

They were all planning on leaving anyway, company claims

The door plug on Boeing's C-suite has flown off, taking the CEO, board chair, and head of its commercial airplane division with it.

Boeing announced the departures in a press release this morning, saying that CEO Dave Calhoun will be stepping down from his role at the end of this year. Board chair Larry Kellner will decline to stand for reelection at this year's annual shareholder meeting (typically held in mid to late April), and Stan Deal, CEO of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, is retiring immediately to be replaced with current Boeing COO Stephanie Pope.

The aerospace giant didn't make any definitive statement on the reason for the shakeup, and hasn't responded to questions to that end, though the company has faced its fair share of bad publicity in recent months.

Trouble at Boeing has been brewing since January of this year when an emergency door plug on an Alaskan Airlines flight blew out in mid air, injuring several people. Federal Aviation Administration-mandated inspections found loose bolts on several 737 Max 9 aircraft in the wake of the plug failure, suggesting widespread manufacturing issues.

Airlines flying Boeing jets described the door plug incident as the most recent in a line of continuous safety issues at the company, with United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby calling the latest debacle "the straw that broke the camel's back."

Kirby suggested United may go elsewhere for its next round of jet purchases, and Boeing's share prices have fallen by around a quarter since January.

An FAA report on safety issues at Boeing found widespread failures in Boeing's safety culture and demanded immediate fixes. The US National Transportation Safety Board, which has undertaken its own investigation of the door plug incident, told Congress that Boeing was delaying turning over requested documents despite multiple attempts to claw the information out of it.

The US Department of Justice has also begun a criminal investigation of the Alaska Airlines incident, suggesting even greater trouble ahead for the company.

Calhoun alluded to the reason for his pending departure in a letter to Boeing employees published alongside the shakeup announcement, calling the Alaska Airlines incident "a watershed moment for Boeing."

"I have been considering for some time, in discussion with our board of directors, the right time for a CEO transition at Boeing," Calhoun said in the letter. "I want to share with you that I have decided this will be my last year as CEO of our great company, and I have notified the board of that decision."

Calhoun, who went from board chair to CEO at Boeing in 2020 in the wake of two fatal crashes of 737 Max jets, was ostensibly hired to improve safety culture at the company. In the letter, he described outgoing Boeing board chair Kellner as his "long-time partner in all things Boeing," which provides a bit of an explanation for why he's headed out the door too. 

"Larry, too, had been considering the appropriate moment to turn over the reins after more than four years as chair and 13 years on our board, and concluded that the CEO selection process should be led by a chair who will stay at the helm as a partner to the new CEO," Calhoun said.

It's not clear if Boeing will search outside its own ranks for a new CEO. Both Calhoun and his predecessor, Dennis Muilenberg, were promoted to the position from inside the company.

"We will remain squarely focused on completing the work we have done together to return our company to stability after the extraordinary challenges of the past five years, with safety and quality at the forefront of everything that we do," Calhoun said of the shakeup. ®

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