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Boeing under scrutiny again as whistleblowers testify before Senate

Boeing says it is in the process of implementing recommendations from an FAA panel that, over the last year, audited the company's safety culture.
Boeing under scrutiny again as whistleblowers testify before Senate
Posted at 6:41 PM, Apr 17, 2024

America's largest plane manufacturer, once a shining standard of engineering and safety, was again under scrutiny Wednesday beneath the lights of a Senate hearing room.

In a nearly two-hour hearing, whistleblowers alleged continued manufacturing missteps at the company and even a "coverup" of important documents related to the blowout of a door plug on an Alaska Airlines flight earlier this year.

One current and one former Boeing engineer joined a former Federal Aviation Administration engineer and an aviation safety consultant to tell lawmakers Boeing's safety culture still falls short of a safe standard. 

Sam Salehpour, a current Boeing quality engineer, said he's concerned about what he characterized as safety lapses in the company's 787 and 777 programs.

"Since 2013, there have been serious issues on the 787 program, not properly closing thousands of gaps in its assembly of the fuselage," Salehpour said.

Those same concerns caused a halt to 787 Dreamliner deliveries in 2020 and 2021 before the FAA approved a fix.

On its website Wednesday, Boeing directed visitors to a page on "787 Quality Information." There, the company wrote, "Claims about the structural integrity of the 787 are inaccurate." The page also noted that testing on the plane "simulated up to 165,000 cycles of pressurization, about 3.75 times the aircraft's designed lifespan, with no findings of airframe fatigue."

In his testimony Wednesday, Salehpour detailed instances of employees forcing misaligned plane parts together. "I literally saw people jumping on the pieces of the airplane to get them to align," he said.

"If his claims are valid, then the potential risk is sort of a long-term risk," David Slotnick, senior aviation business reporter with The Points Guy, said. "It's not like the plane is going to fall apart in the middle of the sky tomorrow. It's more of a scenario where the planes might not last as long as expected, [and] any kind of fatigue that was happening to the structures would be caught during normal maintenance or normal inspections."

SEE MORE: Whistleblower says Boeing's 787 Dreamliner is flawed

Ed Pierson, a prominent Boeing whistleblower and former employee of the company, leveled an accusation of a "coverup" at Boeing of documents related to the Alaska Airlines flight that lost a door plug midflight in January.

The investigation into that incident has so far indicated the door plug that blew out was removed and re-installed at a Boeing facility in September 2023. The National Transportation Safety Board said Wednesday that it still has not received any documentation from Boeing about that work. The NTSB Chair told lawmakers last week that Boeing indicated that said documentation does not exist.

"I'm not gonna sugarcoat this," Pierson said Wednesday. "This is a criminal cover-up. Records do, in fact, exist. I know this because I've personally passed them to the FBI."

Scripps News reached out to the FBI and the NTSB to respond on Wednesday. The FBI declined to comment. The NTSB said it had "not received any such documentation from Boeing or any other entity. Those who have information or documentation that may be relevant to the NTSB's investigation into this accident are encouraged to reach out to investigators."

Scripps News also reached out to Pierson to inquire about whether he's tried to give the NTSB the documentation he says he has. He had not responded Wednesday evening.

Pierson also alleged the NTSB was not a truly "independent" authority, relying too heavily on Boeing and the FAA for information germane to their investigations. In response, the NTSB said, "The NTSB leverages its limited resources by designating organizations as parties that can provide technical information during the fact-gathering phase of the investigation. Once the fact-gathering is completed and the factual record is established, the role of any given party in the investigation is concluded. Parties are excluded from the analysis and report-writing phase of all NTSB investigations."

Boeing says it is in the process of implementing recommendations from an FAA panel that, over the last year, audited the company's safety culture. It also told Scripps News it has seen a 500% increase in employee reports through its internal whistleblowing portal, "which signals progress toward a robust reporting culture that is not fearful of retaliation," they said.

For its part, the FAA has a relatively new administrator, Mike Whitaker. In an interview with Scripps News in January, just before the Alaska Airlines blowout, NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy said Whitaker was working with her to change the agency's approach to pilot mental health care. Slotnick thinks that the same attitude extends to the safety oversight of Boeing.

"I think the FAA that we see today is a very different organization," he said. "The FAA is adamant that it thoroughly investigates every whistleblower complaint. You know, their track record suggests that's exactly true."

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