18 Apr 2024

Boeing's safety culture under fire at US Senate hearings

9:51 am on 18 April 2024
(FILES) Boeing 787 Dreamliners are built at the aviation company's North Charleston, South Carolina, assembly plant on May 30, 2023. Boeing defended its safety practices April 15, 2024, touting aircraft testing protocols as it girds for a tough congressional hearing featuring critics of the embattled aviation giant. (Photo by Juliette MICHEL / AFP)

Photo: AFP

By Allison Lampert and Abhijith Ganapavaram, Reuters

Boeing's safety culture and manufacturing quality, both at the centre of a full-blown crisis following a Jan mid-air panel blowout, have faced scrutiny in two US Senate hearings.

Boeing has been grappling with a safety crisis after the door plug panel blew off an Alaska Airlines flight that took off from Portland, Oregon, on 5 January. The planemaker has undergone a management shakeup, US regulators have put curbs on its production, and deliveries fell by half in March.

Testimony at the US senate permanent subcommittee on investigations raised questions about missing records surrounding the panel, along with production concerns over two separate Boeing widebody jets.

Former Boeing engineer Ed Pierson said he turned over records, sent to him from an internal whistleblower, to the FBI that he said provided information about the plug.

Boeing has said it believed that required documents detailing the removal of the door plug were never created.

Boeing directed questions to the National Transportation Safety Board, which was not immediately available for comment.

The FBI declined comment.

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 17: Boeing engineer Sam Salehpour arrives for a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee on investigations hearing titled "Boeing's broken safety culture, focusing on firsthand accounts" at the U.S. Capitol on April 17, 2024 in Washington, DC. In an interview with NBC News, Salehpour says that he thinks all 787 jets should be grounded to allow for proper safety checks of the plane, which has come under fire in recent months following a slew of incidents.   Kent Nishimura/Getty Images/AFP (Photo by Kent Nishimura / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP)

Boeing engineer Sam Salehpour at a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee on investigations hearing. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Whistleblower Sam Salehpour, a Boeing quality engineer who raised questions about two of the planemaker's widebody jets, claimed he was told to "shut up" when he flagged safety concerns. He has said that he was removed from the 787 program and transferred to the 777 jet due to his questions.

Salehpour has claimed Boeing failed to adequately shim, or use a thin piece of material to fill tiny gaps in a manufactured product, an omission that could cause premature fatigue failure over time in some areas of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Salehpour said he had reached out to Boeing official Lisa Fahl but was not provided specific safety data.

Fahl has said the 787, which was launched in 2004, had a specification of five-thousandths of an inch gap allowance within a five-inch area, or "the thickness of a human hair."

"When you are operating at 35,000 feet," the size of a human hair can be a matter of life and death, Salehpour told the hearing.

Salehpour's lawyers had previously said documentation he provided to the FAA would be available at the hearing.

Blumenthal held up a 2021 memo from Salehpour and read a line that said "kicking me out of the program because I am raising safety concerns" does not help anybody.

Reuters could not immediately find any documents or links posted publicly online.

Boeing has challenged Salehpour's claims against the 787 and 777, which fly internationally, arguing on Monday it has not found fatigue cracks on nearly 700 in-service Dreamliner jets that have gone through heavy maintenance.

In a statement on Wednesday, Boeing defended the planes' safety, noting that the global 787 fleet has safely transported more than 850 million passengers, while the 777 has safely flown more than 3.9 billion travellers.

The FAA said in a statement that every aircraft flying is in compliance with the regulator's airworthiness directives.

Earlier in the day, members of the US Senate Commerce Committee said Boeing needs to do more to improve its safety culture, following a February report commissioned after two crashes involving the 737 MAX killed a combined 346 people.

US Senate Commerce Committee Chair Maria Cantwell said she expects Boeing to submit a serious plan in response to a deadline from regulator the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). In late February, the FAA said Boeing must develop a comprehensive plan to address "systemic quality-control issues" within 90 days.

- This story was first published by Reuters.

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