By Andrew Tangel and Andy Pasztor 

This article is being republished as part of our daily reproduction of WSJ.com articles that also appeared in the U.S. print edition of The Wall Street Journal (August 8, 2020).

A central figure in a federal criminal probe into Boeing Co.'s development of the 737 MAX is leaving Southwest Airlines Co., where he has worked as a pilot since leaving the plane maker more than two years ago.

Mark Forkner, who as Boeing's 737 MAX chief technical pilot oversaw regulatory approvals for training and pilot manuals, is among more than 4,400 Southwest employees who opted for a voluntary buyout package, a spokeswoman for the airline said. U.S. carriers have been preparing to slash their payrolls in recent months as the worsening coronavirus pandemic sapped demand for air travel.

Justice Department prosecutors in recent months have been gathering information about Mr. Forkner and his then-fellow Boeing technical pilot Patrik Gustavsson, according to people familiar with the matter. Boeing and the Justice Department declined to comment.

David Gerger, Mr. Forkner's attorney, said Mr. Forkner was among some 630 pilots who took the voluntary exit package. The airline spokeswoman said the deals include payouts as well as medical and travel benefits.

Mr. Forkner will remain at the Dallas-based carrier through Aug. 31, the Southwest spokeswoman said.

Separately, the Federal Aviation Administration Friday released results of an internal 2019 survey indicating that a sizable share of employees had concerns about the agency's safety culture, ranging from lack of support by managers to an overly business-friendly orientation among senior personnel.

The Wall Street Journal reported in March prosecutors were seeking to build a criminal case against Mr. Forkner and were considering charges against Mr. Gustavsson, focusing on initial certification and related pilot-training requirements for the MAX. Mr. Gerger has said Mr. Forkner did his job honestly and would never jeopardize the safety of other pilots or their passengers.

Mr. Gustavsson and his lawyer couldn't be reached.

Mr. Forkner emerged as a focus of the MAX saga after disclosures of chat messages and emails he sent during his time at Boeing, including one exchange in which he said he inadvertently misled the FAA about a flight-control system later implicated in two fatal crashes that claimed 346 lives.

Federal prosecutors and investigators have interviewed other airline pilots to understand what their professional obligations to report safety issues should be in such situations, people familiar with the matter said.

While at Boeing, Mr. Forkner helped Boeing avoid FAA requirements that MAX pilots undergo simulator training, a costly prospect for Boeing's airline customers. Congressional investigators and various independent safety studies have raised questions about whether Mr. Forkner or other Boeing officials misled or failed to adequately inform FAA officials about MAX safety issues. Boeing has said the MAX met regulators' certification standards and requirements.

Previously disclosed emails show Mr. Forkner requested FAA approval to delete mention of the flight-control system, MCAS, from pilot manuals, arguing it would only activate in rare circumstances.

The FAA survey found more than three out of 10 employees with direct safety responsibilities felt they lacked adequate training or staff resources to properly do their jobs. The same proportion said they were concerned "external influences," such as industry pressure, unduly affected certain safety decisions. Conducted by Rand Corp., a government-supported research organization, the survey also found that more than one-quarter of the respondents believed safety issues raised by employees weren't always adequately addressed by managers and the outcome wasn't reported back to employees in a timely fashion. The survey didn't concentrate on any specific office or aircraft model.

Other findings included that many employees consider senior FAA leaders "overly concerned with achieving the business-oriented outcomes" pushed by companies, and believe agency management often accedes to industry pressure to help meet timelines and manage costs.

Nearly half of those who responded indicated they thought the FAA delegated too many safety analyses to industry. According to the findings, many employees "believe that they will suffer subtle but obvious consequences if they raise safety issues too frequently."

Pertaining to the MAX, Rand reported high-level FAA safety officials "painted 'too rosy a picture' in the aftermath" of two fatal MAX crashes and failed to acknowledge needed policy and procedural changes.

In a letter to Rep. Peter DeFazio, the Oregon Democrat who heads the House Transportation Committee, FAA chief Steve Dickson on Friday vowed to support rank-and-file aviation safety professionals by "achieving the institutional improvements we need to make."

Mr. DeFazio responded by saying "the survey results are damning" and reflect "a disturbing pattern of senior officials at a federal agency rolling over for industry."

Responding to the MAX crashes and survey results, the FAA is developing a voluntary, nonpunitive reporting system for the agency's safety organization similar to those that have proved successful for pilots, mechanics and air-traffic controllers.

The MAX has been grounded world-wide since its second crash in March 2019. The FAA is expected to approve the aircraft to resume passenger service later this year, after pilots undergo required MAX simulator training.

--Alison Sider and Dave Michaels contributed to this article.

Write to Andrew Tangel at Andrew.Tangel@wsj.com and Andy Pasztor at andy.pasztor@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

August 08, 2020 02:47 ET (06:47 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Boeing (NYSE:BA)
Historical Stock Chart
From Aug 2020 to Sep 2020 Click Here for more Boeing Charts.
Boeing (NYSE:BA)
Historical Stock Chart
From Sep 2019 to Sep 2020 Click Here for more Boeing Charts.