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Boeing held its annual shareholders meeting amid a string of controversies

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Another bad week in a brutal year for Boeing. The troubled aircraft maker held its annual shareholder meeting yesterday, under heightened scrutiny. There was that door plug panel that blew off a 737 MAX in mid-air in January. But also news this week that Boeing could face criminal prosecution for two previous crashes. NPR's transportation correspondent Joel Rose joins us now. Joel, thanks for being with us.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Hey, Scott.

SIMON: What stood out in that shareholders meeting?

ROSE: Boeing kept a very tight grip on the message. We basically heard only from the new board chairman, Steve Mollenkopf, and the CEO, Dave Calhoun. The shareholders voted to keep Calhoun on the company's board after his term as CEO ends. And Calhoun talked a lot about efforts to improve quality at Boeing and how the company has encouraged employees to speak up about their concerns. Here's a clip from Calhoun.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAVE CALHOUN: A strong culture listens to its people. It listens to its critics. It listens to its customers, and it acts on the feedback. This is the Boeing culture that we have been working hard to build.

ROSE: But in practice, Boeing did not open the floor to the company's critics or even to its own people. Shareholders did not get to ask questions directly. The questions were asked by a moderator. The company allocated exactly 15 minutes for questions - not a second more. And even the answers seemed, you know, tightly scripted.

SIMON: Joel, what have the shareholders been asking for?

ROSE: One activist shareholder tried to force a vote on a proposal to move the company's headquarters back to Seattle, close to where it makes the 737 and other jets. A lot of people believe Boeing lost its focus on quality around the time that it moved its headquarters to Chicago and then on to Virginia. The idea of moving back to the Puget Sound has also been endorsed, by the way, by the editorial board of The Seattle Times. But Boeing blocked that proposal from getting a vote, and the idea did not come up at yesterday's meeting.

SIMON: And what about the search for a new CEO? Because Boeing announced a big shakeup in March.

ROSE: They did. And shareholders did ask about that. The board did not say anything particularly new about the CEO search, only that it is a high priority. The current CEO, Dave Calhoun, spoke quite a lot. He said he'll step down at the end of the year in the wake of that door plug blowout. But some of the company's critics are wondering why the board can't get somebody else into this job sooner. I talked to Jeffrey Sonnenfeld. He is a dean at the Yale School of Management.

JEFFREY SONNENFELD: That's not very reassuring. Surely, David Calhoun should not have a large voice in the selection of a successor, and it should be much faster than it's happening right now.

ROSE: Sonnenfeld noted that Boeing, you know, recently promoted a number of women into high-profile jobs in manufacturing and operations. And he noted that this would have been a great time to hear from some of them about the changes that the company is making. But again, that did not happen.

SIMON: Joel, what do we know about the criminal charges that Boeing could face?

ROSE: Yeah. This goes back to the crashes of two 737 MAX jets in 2018 and 2019 that killed 346 people. Boeing struck a deal with the Department of Justice to avoid prosecution for misleading regulators about the safety of those planes. Basically, the company was put on probation for three years. Now federal prosecutors say Boeing has not held up its end of the deal and could be subject to prosecution.

Boeing disputes that charge. In a statement, the company said, we believe that we have honored the terms of that agreement and look forward to the opportunity to respond. Family members of the crash victims, though, have long criticized what they consider a sweetheart deal for Boeing, and they are urging prosecutors to take the company to court. It's just not clear yet what the Justice Department will decide.

SIMON: NPR's transportation correspondent Joel Rose, thanks so much.

ROSE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.