Pluralistic: Boeing's deliberately defective fleet of flying sky-wreckage (01 May 2024)

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A Boeing 737 Max with Boeing livery, flying through a grey-blue sky. It has split in two. The tail section, which is falling out of the sky, has a large REJECTED stamp on it. A parachute sailing away from the wreckage suspends a '¯\_(ツ)_/¯' ASCII shrug emoji.

Boeing's deliberately defective fleet of flying sky-wreckage (permalink)

Boeing's 787 "Dreamliner" is manufactured far from the company's Seattle facility, in a non-union shop in Charleston, South Carolina. At that shop, there is a cage full of defective parts that have been pulled from production because they are not airworthy.

Hundreds of parts from that Material Review Segregation Area (MRSA) were secretly pulled from that cage and installed on aircraft that are currently plying the world's skies. Among them, sections 47/48 of a 787 – the last four rows of the plane, along with its galley and rear toilets. As Moe Tkacik writes in her excellent piece on Boeing's lethally corrupt culture of financialization and whistleblower intimidation, this is a big ass chunk of an airplane, and there's no way it could go missing from the MRSA cage without a lot of people knowing about it:

More: MRSA parts are prominently emblazoned with red marks denoting them as defective and unsafe. For a plane to escape Boeing's production line and find its way to a civilian airport near you with these defective parts installed, many people will have to see and ignore this literal red flag.

The MRSA cage was a special concern of John "Swampy" Barnett, the Boeing whistleblower who is alleged to have killed himself in March. Tkacik's earlier profile of Swampy paints a picture of a fearless, stubborn engineer who refused to go along to get along, refused to allow himself to become inured to Boeing's growing culture of profits over safety:

Boeing is America's last aviation company and its single largest exporter. After the company was allowed to merge with its rival McDonnell-Douglas in 1997, the combined company came under MDD's notoriously financially oriented management culture. MDD CEO Harry Stonecipher became Boeing's CEO in the early 2000s. Stonecipher was a protege of Jack Welch, the man who destroyed General Electric with cuts to quality and workforce and aggressive union-busting, a classic Mafia-style "bust-out" that devoured the company's seed corn and left it a barren wasteland:

Post-merger, Boeing became increasingly infected with MDD's culture. The company chased cheap, less-skilled labor to other countries and to America's great onshore-offshore sacrifice zone, the "right-to-work" American south, where bosses can fire uppity workers who balked at criminal orders, without the hassle of a union grievance.

Stonecipher was succeeded by Jim "Prince Jim" McNerney, ex-3M CEO, another Jack Welch protege (Welch spawned a botnet of sociopath looters who seized control of the country's largest, most successful firms, and drove them into the ground). McNerney had a cute name for the company's senior engineers: "phenomenally talented assholes." He created a program to help his managers force these skilled workers – everyone at Boeing who knew how to build a plane – out of the company.

McNerney's big idea was to get rid of "phenomenally talented assholes" and outsource the Dreamliner's design to Boeing's suppliers, who were utterly dependent on the company and could easily be pushed around (McNerney didn't care that most of these companies lacked engineering departments). This resulted in a $80b cost overrun, and a last-minute scramble to save the 787 by shipping a "cleanup crew" from Seattle to South Carolina, in the hopes that those "phenomenally talented assholes" could save McNerney's ass.

Swampy was part of the cleanup crew. He was terrified by what he saw there. Boeing had convinced the FAA to let the company perform its own inspections, replacing independent government inspectors with Boeing employees. The company would mark its own homework, and it swore that it wouldn't cheat.

Boeing cheated. Swampy dutifully reported the legion of safety violations he witnessed and was banished to babysit the MRSA, an assignment his managers viewed as a punishment that would isolate Swampy from the criminality he refused to stop reporting. Instead, Swampy audited the MRSA, and discovered that at least 420 defective aviation components had gone missing from the cage, presumably to be installed in planes that were behind schedule. Swampy then audited the keys to the MRSA and learned that hundreds of keys were "floating around" the Charleston facility. Virtually anyone could liberate a defective part and install it into an airplane without any paper trail.

Swampy's bosses had a plan for dealing with this. They ordered Swampy to "pencil whip" the investigations of 420 missing defective components and close the cases without actually figuring out what happened to them. Swampy refused.

Instead, Swampy took his concerns to a departmental meeting where 12 managers were present and announced that "if we can’t find them, any that we can’t find, we need to report it to the FAA." The only response came from a supervisor, who said, "We’re not going to report anything to the FAA."

The thing is, Swampy wasn't just protecting the lives of the passengers in those defective aircraft – he was also protecting Boeing employees. Under Sec 38 of the US Criminal Code, it's a 15-year felony to make any "materially false writing, entry, certification, document, record, data plate, label, or electronic communication concerning any aircraft or space vehicle part."

(When Swampy told a meeting that he took this seriously because "the paperwork is just as important as the aircraft" the room erupted in laughter.)

Swampy sent his own inspectors to the factory floor, and they discovered "dozens of red-painted defective parts installed on planes."

Swampy blew the whistle. How did the 787 – and the rest of Boeing's defective flying turkeys – escape the hangar and find their way into commercial airlines' fleets? Tkacik blames a 2000 whistleblower law called AIR21 that:

creates such byzantine procedures, locates adjudication power in such an outgunned federal agency, and gives whistleblowers such a narrow chance of success that it effectively immunizes airplane manufacturers, of which there is one in the United States, from suffering any legal repercussions from the testimony of their own workers.

By his own estimation, Swampy was ordered to commit two felonies per week for six years. Tkacik explains that this kind of operation relies on a culture of ignorance – managers must not document their orders, and workers must not be made aware of the law. Whistleblowers like Swampy, who spoke the unspeakable, were sidelined (an assessment by one of Swampy's managers called him "one of the best" and finished that "leadership would give hugs and high fives all around at his departure").

Multiple whistleblowers were singled out for retaliation and forced departure. William Hobek, a quality manager who refused to "pencil whip" the missing, massive 47-48 assembly that had wandered away from the MRSA cage, was given a "weak" performance review and fired despite an HR manager admitting that it was bogus.

Another quality manager, Cynthia Kitchens, filed an ethics complaint against manager Elton Wright who responded to her persistent reporting of defects on the line by shoving her against a wall and shouting that Boeing was "a good ol’ boys’ club and you need to get on board." Kitchens was fired in 2016. She had cancer at the time.

John Woods, yet another quality engineer, was fired after he refused to sign off on a corner-cutting process to repair a fuselage – the FAA later backed up his judgment.

Then there's Sam Salehpour, the 787 quality engineer whose tearful Congressional testimony described more corner-cutting on fuselage repairs:

Salehpour's boss followed the Boeing playbook to the letter: Salehpour was constantly harangued and bullied, and he was isolated from colleagues who might concur with his assessment. When Salehpour announced that he would give Congressional testimony, his car was sabotaged under mysterious circumstances.

It's a playbook. Salehpour's experience isn't unusual at Boeing. Two other engineers, working on the 787 Organization Designation Authorization, held up production by insisting that the company fix the planes' onboard navigation computers. Their boss gave them a terrible performance review, admitting that top management was furious at the delays and had ordered him to punish the engineers. The engineers' union grievance failed, with Boeing concluding that this conduct – which they admitted to – didn't rise to the level of retaliation.

As Tkacik points out, these engineers and managers that Boeing targeted for intimidation and retaliation are the very same staff who are supposed to be performing inspections of behalf of the FAA. In other words, Boeing has spent years attacking its own regulator, with total impunity.

But it's not just the FAA who've failed to take action – it's also the DOJ, who have consistently declined to bring prosecutions in most cases, and who settled the rare case they did bring with "deferred prosecution agreements." This pattern was true under Trump's DOJ and continued under Biden's tenure. Biden's prosecutors have been so lackluster that a federal judge "publicly rebuked the DOJ for failing to take seriously the reputational damage its conduct throughout the Boeing case was inflicting on the agency."

Meanwhile, there's the AIR21 rule, a "whistleblower" rule that actually protects Boeing from whistleblowers. Under AIR21, an aviation whistleblower who is retaliated against by their employer must first try to resolve their problem internally. If that fails, the whistleblower has only one course of action: file an OSHA complaint within 90 days (if HR takes more than 90 days to resolve your internal complaint, you no have no further recourse). If you manage to raise a complaint with OSHA, it is heard by a secret tribunal that has no subpoena power and routinely takes five years to rule on cases, and rules against whistleblowers 97% of the time.

Boeing whistleblowers who missed the 90-day cutoff have filled the South Carolina courts with last-ditch attempts to hold the company to account. When they lose these cases – as is routine, given Boeing's enormous legal muscle and AIR21's legal handcuffs – they are often ordered to pay Boeing's legal costs.

Tkacik cites Swampy's lawyer, Rob Turkewitz, who says Swampy was the only one of Boeing's whistleblowers who was "savvy, meticulous, and fast-moving enough to bring an AIR 21 case capable of jumping through all the hoops" to file an AIR21 case, which then took seven years. Turkewitz calls Boeing South Carolina "a criminal enterprise."

That's a conclusion that's hard to argue with. Take Boeing's excuse for not producing the documentation of its slapdash reinstallation of the Alaska Air door plug that fell off its plane in flight: the company says it's not criminally liable for failing to provide the paperwork, because it never documented the repair. Not documenting the repair is also a crime.

You might have heard that there's some accountability coming to the Boeing boardroom, with the ouster of CEO David Calhoun. Calhoun's likely successor is Patrick Shanahan, whom Tkacik describes as "the architect of the ethos that governed the 787 program" and whom her source called "a classic schoolyard bully."

If Shanahan's name rings a bell, it might be because he was almost Trump's Secretary of Defense, but that was derailed by the news that he had "emphatically defended" his 17 year old son after the boy nearly beat his mother to death with a baseball bat. Shanahan is presently CEO of Spirit Aerospace, who made the door-plug that fell out of the Alaska Airlines 737 Max.

Boeing is a company where senior managers only fail up and where whistleblowers are terrorized in and out of the workplace. One of Tkacik's sources noticed his car shimmying. The source, an ex-787 worker who'd been fired after raising safety complaints, had tried to bring an AIR21 complaint, but withdrew it out of fear of being bankrupted if he was ordered to pay Boeing's legal costs. When the whistleblower pulled over, he discovered that two of the lug-nuts had been removed from one of his wheels.

The whistleblower texted Tkcacik to say (not for the first time): "If anything happens, I'm not suicidal."

Boeing is a primary aerospace contractor to the US government. It's clear that its management – and investors – consider it too big to jail. It's also clear that they know it's too big to fail – after all, the company did a $43b stock buyback, then got billions in a publicly funded buyback.

Boeing is, effectively, a government agency that is run for the benefit of its investors. It performs its own safety inspections. It investigates its own criminal violations of safety rules. It loots its own coffers and then refills them at public expense.

Meanwhile, the company has filled our skies with at least 420 airplanes with defective, red-painted parts that were locked up in the MRSA cage, then snuck out and fitted to an airplane that you or someone you love could fly on the next time you take your family on vacation or fly somewhere for work.

(Image: Tom Axford 1, CC BY-SA 4.0; Clemens Vasters, CC BY 2.0; modified)

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