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Boeing whistleblowers describe ‘criminal cover-up,’ safety risks to Senate

Boeing engineer Sam Salehpour provided a trove of Boeing documents to Congressional subcommittee

By Dominic Gates, The Seattle Times
Published: April 18, 2024, 7:49am

This year’s nonstop public flaying of Boeing continued in two separate U.S. Senate hearings Wednesday as Congress responded to public alarm over the jet-maker’s broken safety culture.

In sworn testimony before a Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee, Boeing engineer Sam Salehpour reiterated his accusation that Boeing has hidden safety risks on the 787 Dreamliner and the 777 widebody jets, rejecting the account Boeing offered Monday in an effort to reassure the public.

He provided a trove of Boeing documents to the subcommittee. These included his own internal technical presentations, data and emails detailing for managers how the gaps at major joins of the 787 fuselage sections exceeded specification.

“Boeing hid problems, pushing pieces together with excessive force to make it appear that the gaps don’t exist,” Salehpour testified. “They are putting out defective airplanes.”

He also provided presentations by other engineers on the difficulties mechanics encountered assembling the 777 fuselages because parts didn’t align.

“Boeing manufacturing used unmeasured and unlimited amount of force to correct the misalignment,” Salehpour said. “I literally saw people jumping on the pieces of the airplane to get them to align.”

During the same hearing, former Boeing manager Ed Pierson accused the company of a “criminal cover-up” in the government’s investigation of the fuselage panel blowout aboard a Boeing 737 MAX on Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 in January.

He oversaw the MAX assembly line in Renton until shortly before the first of two deadly crashes and had complained to senior management then that the pace of production was unsafe.

“The world is shocked to learn about Boeing’s current production quality issues,” said Pierson. “I’m not surprised because nothing changed after the two crashes. There was no accountability.”

A bipartisan group of senators piled on criticism of Boeing during the hearing before the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which coincided with a separate hearing on safety issues at Boeing before the Senate commerce committee.

“Boeing is at a moment of reckoning. It’s a moment many years in the making,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who chaired the subcommittee hearing, calling the testimony “serious, even shocking.”

“There are mounting serious allegations that Boeing has a broken safety culture and a set of practices that are unacceptable,” he said.

The ranking Republican member on the committee, Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, joined the chorus of Boeing criticism, even after noting that air travel has the best safety record of any form of transportation.

“It’s what I keep telling myself when I go on an airplane. And even when I hop on a 737 MAX,” Johnson said. “But I have to admit, this testimony is more than troubling.”

Blumenthal said the committee will call further follow-up hearings and wants testimony from both the Federal Aviation Administration and Boeing, including Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun.

And he said he wants the Department of Justice to reopen the deferred prosecution agreement that in early 2021 settled its case against Boeing over the two deadly 737 MAX crashes with a minimal fine and no criminal charges against the company or top executives.

Blumenthal said the DOJ should consider the evidence his committee has gathered and examine “whether conditions of that agreement have been violated, whether criminal prosecution is appropriate.”

The Senate scrutiny reflected the collapse of public trust in Boeing and the fierce backlash since the alarming Alaska in-flight incident.

In a statement responding to the allegations, Boeing insisted again Wednesday it is “fully confident in the safety” of both the 787 and the 777.

Since the 787 entered service 13 years ago, it has safely transported more than 850 million passengers on more than 4.2 million flights, Boeing said. It rejected Salehpour’s allegation that over years of flying the fuselage gaps might cause premature damage to the airframe, known as “fatigue.”

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“A 787 can safely operate for at least 30 years before needing expanded airframe maintenance routines,” Boeing said. “Extensive and rigorous testing of the fuselage and heavy maintenance checks of nearly 700 in-service airplanes to date have found zero evidence of airframe fatigue.”

United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby, speaking Wednesday on CNBC after the airline reported its first quarter earnings, backed Boeing’s assurances on the 787.

“There are thousands of these airplanes, they have been flying for decades and millions of flight hours,” Kirby said. “I am totally confident the 787 is a safe airplane.”

“I’m not going to sugarcoat this”

Boeing quality engineer and whistleblower Salehpour repeated his assertions last week that 787 Dreamliners are at risk of long-term structural failure due to the gaps at the major fuselage joins.

Although his analysis is that there is a risk those joins might separate and the plane could “fall apart” only after many years of service, Salehpour went further Tuesday in an interview with ABC News and said Boeing should ground the entire fleet of about 1,000 Dreamliners and halt production.

Boeing on Monday provided journalists detailed briefings and a tour of the 787 assembly facilities in North Charleston, S.C., in an effort to allay public worries.

Salehpour rejected Boeing’s defense, saying management has concealed the safety threat.

He repeated his allegation last week that a thorough inspection of 29 of the 787 airplanes “found gaps exceeding the specification that were not properly addressed 98.7% of the time” and that drilling debris “ended up in the gaps 80% of the time.”

“I have analyzed Boeing’s own data to conclude that the company has taken manufacturing shortcuts on the 787 program that may significantly reduce the airplane safety,” Salehpour testified.

Boeing on Monday had specifically rebutted Salehpour’s first claim, saying the sample size was 26 airplanes and that the data showed exactly the opposite result: that nearly 99% of the gaps were “fully conforming” and less than the required specification.

Steve Chisholm, chief engineer for Boeing mechanical and structural engineering, denied the claim about debris in the gaps and added that tests showed even if there was debris, it is “not detrimental.”

Salehpour said he took his concerns directly to the other engineering leader who presented Boeing’s case on Monday in South Carolina: Lisa Fahl, Boeing’s vice president of airplane programs engineering.

He said she promised to get back to him with data that would allay his fears, but never did so. “I have not seen any information whatsoever,” said Salehpour.

Instead of providing answers, Salehpour said Boeing managers retaliated against him.

“I was sidelined. I was told to shut up. I received physical threats,” he said.

He said the physical threat came when his boss on the 777 program told him “I would have killed someone who said what you said in the meeting.”

Blumenthal even showed a photo of a bolt driven through the tire of Salehpour’s car, though Salehpour acknowledged he has “no proof” colleagues spiked the tire.

Pierson, the former Boeing manager, described a culture of ignoring safety risks at Boeing and failed oversight by both the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration that he said has led to a litany of system failures aboard U.S. airline jets, though nothing yet with catastrophic consequences.

Pierson first raised safety concerns about manufacturing of the 737 MAX before the first deadly MAX crash in Indonesia in 2018.

And although the primary cause of both that crash and the one that followed just over four months later in Ethiopia was an engineering design error in critical flight control software, Pierson insists manufacturing errors contributed to it and that the MAX is still unsafe.

At the hearing, Pierson criticized both the NTSB and the FAA of being “overly dependent on Boeing” and lacking independence.

And he raised the stakes by accusing Boeing of criminally hiding evidence by failing to produce documentation on the work to install the fuselage panel that blew off the Alaska Airlines flight on Jan. 5.

Boeing has said there are no records that identify who removed and incorrectly reinstalled that fuselage panel in September.

“I’m not going to sugarcoat this,” Pierson said. “This is a criminal cover-up. Records do in fact exist. I know this because I’ve personally passed them to the FBI.”

Pierson is referring to the Shipside Action Tracker, or SAT, data, which is a series of entries in an informal computer database at the MAX assembly plant in Renton used to track problems during assembly and their resolution.

That documentation does exist and Boeing has provided it to the NTSB, the safety agency charged with investigating the incident, NTSB chair Jennifer Homendy confirmed Wednesday to aviation trade magazine Flight Global.

The SAT document shows it was Boeing mechanics who opened and then incorrectly reinstalled the panel — a door plug used to fill a hole where some airlines choose to have an extra emergency door installed.

The Seattle Times obtained a copy of the page in the SAT record that contains the entries for the days when the panel was removed and reinstalled and the work item closed out.

However, the document does not identify the individuals who did the work. The employees named in the record are “manufacturing representatives” in the factory who simply log the entries to track the progression of the work.

Their role is as the liaison between the mechanics who do the work and the managers who assign the work.

So the document Pierson has given the FBI doesn’t directly contradict Boeing’s assertion that there is no documentation identifying who did the work.

“I believe the whistleblower has the Shipside Tracker, which we already have, [and] is not the documents we are looking for,” Homendy told Flight Global. “We’re looking for other documents that don’t exist.”

In any case, it remains problematic and mystifying that Boeing cannot identify those individuals from its team in Renton.

Pierson last year created an organization called the Foundation for Aviation Safety that focuses on safety of the 737 MAX.

Joe Jacobsen, a retired FAA safety engineer and whistleblower, now a consultant for the foundation, also testified Wednesday, ticking off a long list of 737 MAX systems issues the FAA has identified as unsafe and requiring a fix from Boeing.

He cited the engine anti-ice system, exhaust duct fasteners, compromised sealant adhesion within the fuel tank, loose bolts in the rudder assembly, stuck rudder pedals, and misinstalled electrical wire bundles in the wing.

Pierson’s foundation also compiled an exhaustive list of in-flight issues reported by airlines on MAX jets in service.

In his testimony Wednesday, Pierson drew attention in particular to more than 1,200 instances of MAX system malfunctions on Alaska Airlines flights.

Last September, several independent safety experts asked by The Seattle Times to examine about a dozen of what Pierson described as the most-egregious of those incidents concluded all were routine maintenance issues and not real safety risks.

Furthermore, Jason Lai, the Alaska Airlines managing director of engineering, that month said Alaska had at that time zero reports of serious incidents on the MAX.

Of course, that was before the door plug blew out on Flight 1282 in January.

Wednesday’s hearing continues the run of public relations shocks to Boeing, fueled now by testimony from insiders.

At this point, Boeing’s three most important current jets — the 737, 777 and 787 — are under public attack, accused of being a safety risk. Those aircraft are flying thousands of flights every day.

The resolution of the glaring disparity in the safety risk judgments between Boeing and the whistleblowers may now rest — despite Pierson’s reservations about the FAA’s independence — upon that safety regulator’s technical assessment of Salehpour’s data and Boeing’s response.

It was an FAA threat in June 2020 to mandate action over the fuselage gaps that forced Boeing to halt deliveries of the 787 for nearly two years, a step that Boeing says cost it $6.3 billion.

And it was the FAA in August 2022 that judged Boeing had control of the problem and it was safe to allow 787 deliveries to resume.

“We thoroughly investigate all reports,” the FAA said in a statement.