Boeing hid safety risks in 'criminal cover-up,' whistleblowers tell Senate

Dominic Gates, The Seattle Times on

Published in Business News

In sworn testimony before a U.S. Senate hearing Wednesday, a Boeing engineer reiterated his accusation that Boeing has hidden safety risks on the 787 Dreamliner and the 777 widebody jets, rejecting the account Boeing provided Monday in an effort to reassure the public.

And a former Boeing manager 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.

A bipartisan group of senators piled on criticism of Boeing during the hearing before a Homeland Security subcommittee, which coincided with a separate hearing on safety issues at Boeing before the Senate Commerce Committee. The Senate scrutiny reflected the collapse of public trust in the U.S. jet maker and the fierce backlash since the alarming Alaska in-flight incident.

“Boeing is at a moment of reckoning. It’s a moment many years in the making,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, who chaired the 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 Republican ranking 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 both the FAA and Boeing to testify, including Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun.

'I’m not going to sugarcoat this'

The hearing was before the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations within the Senate’s Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.

Boeing quality engineer and whistleblower Sam Salehpour repeated public assertions offered last week that 787 Dreamliners are at risk of long-term structural failure due to gaps at the fuselage joins and that the 777 widebody jet is also being poorly manufactured.

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

Salehpour rejected Boeing’s assertions, saying management has concealed the safety threat. He described being sidelined, harassed and verbally threatened when he raised his concerns internally over the past three years.

Blumenthal even showed a photo of a bolt driven through the tire of Salehpour’s car, which the engineer said he believed was done deliberately while he was at work at Boeing, though he conceded he couldn’t prove that.

“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.

Former Boeing manager Ed Pierson 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 a software design error, Pierson insists manufacturing errors contributed to it and that the Max is still unsafe.

At the hearing, Pierson 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.”

According to people with knowledge of the document, Pierson is referring to the Shipside Action Tracker, or SAT, data, which is a series of entries in an informal system at the Max assembly plant in Renton, Washington, 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, The Seattle Times has confirmed.

The 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 likely doesn’t directly contradict Boeing’s assertion that there is no documentation identifying who actually did the work.

Of course, it remains problematic and mystifying that months after the incident Boeing hasn’t identified those individuals from the team in Renton.

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

At this point, every one of Boeing’s passenger jets — the 737, 777 and 787 — is under public attack, accused of being a safety risk. All three aircraft are flying hundreds of flights every day.

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