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John Barnett, Boeing whistleblower who raised production concerns, died by suicide: Police

John Barnett, who raised several concerns over Boeing's production standards and was part of a long-running legal case against the company since his retirement, was found dead on March 9. However, the Charleston police concluded their investigation in his death, saying he died by suicide.

Edited By: Aveek Banerjee @AveekABanerjee Charleston Published on: May 18, 2024 13:35 IST
Former Boeing employee John Barnett.
Image Source : X Former Boeing employee John Barnett.

Charleston: A former Boeing employee, who raised concerns over production standards of the aircraft manufacturing company and was found dead after several days of depositions in South Carolina, was found to have died by suicide, police said on Friday after concluding their investigation into his death. John Barnett, 62, had worked for Boeing for 32 years, until his retirement in 2017, and gave evidence in a whistleblower lawsuit against the company.

Barnett was found dead on March 9, and police had said earlier that his injuries were self-inflicted. He was a longtime Boeing employee and worked as a quality-control manager before he retired in 2017. He claimed to have found discarded metal shavings near the wiring for the flight controls that could have cut the wiring and caused a catastrophe. He also noted problems with up to a quarter of the oxygen systems on Boeing's 787 planes.

“Information and records reviewed during the investigation uncovered Mr Barnett's longstanding mental health challenges, which had intensified in connection with ongoing legal proceedings related to his whistleblower case,” police said in a statement. Barnett was in Charleston answering questions for depositions for his whistleblower complaint, and a hearing on the matter was scheduled for June.

Who is Barnett's death?

Barnett's death comes as Boeing and its supplier face intense scrutiny over production standards following an incident in January, where an unused emergency exit door of a Boeing 737 Max blew off mid-air after taking off from Portland International Airport. He worked as a quality manager at the North Charleston plant since 2010 while making the 787 Dreamliner, a state-of-the-art airliner used mainly on long-haul routes.

He told BBC in 2019 that workers had been deliberately fitting sub-standard parts to aircraft on the production line after being under pressure. Barnett also shared his concerns over the push to get new aircraft resulting in the assembly process being rushed and safety becoming compromised, something the company denied.

He also said workers had failed to follow procedures intended to track components through the factory, allowing defective components to go missing, while sub-standard parts were being fitted to planes to prevent delays on the production line. He also claimed that tests on emergency oxygen systems due to be fitted to the 787 showed a failure rate of 25 per cent.

Despite flagging these concerns several times, Barnett said the company took no action. Boeing denied the whistleblower's claims, even though a 2017 review by the US Federal Aviation Administration supported some of his concerns. It established that the location of at least 53 "non-conforming" parts in the factory was unknown, and that they were considered lost. 

Post-retirement life and death

After retiring in 2017 due to health reasons, Barnett became part of a long-running legal action against the airline giant, accusing it of denigrating his character and hampering his career because of the issues he pointed out - all claims were later denied by Boeing. He had been living in Charleston, South Carolina for legal interviews related to the case at the time of his death.

Last week, he gave a formal deposition in which he was questioned by Boeing's lawyers, before being cross-examined by his own counsel. He had been due to undergo further questioning on Saturday. When he did not appear, enquiries were made at his hotel. However, he was found dead in his truck in the hotel car park. His lawyer described his death as "tragic".

“John was deeply concerned about the safety of the aircraft and flying public, and had identified some serious defects that he felt were not adequately addressed,” Barnett's brother, Rodney, said in a family statement shortly after his death. “He said that Boeing had a culture of concealment and was putting profits over safety.”

(with inputs from AP)

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