Boeing crisis of confidence deepens with 787 now under scrutiny

Engineer at aircraft company alleges shortcuts were taken to ease production bottlenecks

Boeing faces a deepening crisis of confidence after an engineer at the US plane maker alleged the company took manufacturing shortcuts on its 787 Dreamliner aircraft to ease production bottlenecks of its most advanced airliner.

Factory workers wrongly measured and filled gaps that can occur when airframe segments of the 787 are joined together, according to Sam Salehpour, a long-time Boeing employee who made his concerns public on Tuesday. That assembly process could create “significant fatigue” in the composite material of the barrel sections and impair the structural integrity of more than 1,000 of the wide-body jets in service, he said.

Mr Salehpour, who according to his attorneys at Katz Banks Kumin in Washington worked on the 787 from 2020 through early 2022, said the issues he described “may dramatically reduce the life of the plane”. Boeing disputes the allegations.

“In a mad rush to reduce the backlog of the planes and get them to market, Boeing did not follow its own engineering requirements,” the engineer said on a conference call with reporters and his lawyers.


The claims risk opening another flank at the embattled plane maker, which is already facing intense scrutiny of its manufacturing and quality practices since a fuselage panel blew off a nearly new 737 Max 9 shortly after take-off on Jan. 5. The allegations now extend the spotlight to the Dreamliner, a critical source of cash for Boeing as 737 output remains muted under close oversight by the US Federal Aviation Administration.

After the allegations were made public, Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, announced that he had asked Boeing’s departing chief executive Dave Calhoun to appear at an April 17th subcommittee hearing called to examine the planemaker’s safety culture. Mr Calhoun last month announced that he’s stepping down by the end of the year, part of a wider management shake-up in the wake of the January 5th incident.

“Boeing understands the important oversight responsibilities of the subcommittee and we are co-operating with this inquiry,” the company said, when asked if Calhoun or other executives planned to testify. “We have offered to provide documents, testimony and technical briefings, and are in discussions with the subcommittee regarding next steps.”

In separate statements, Boeing disputed Mr Salehpour’s account. The company noted it had halted 787 deliveries for nearly two years earlier this decade under close FAA supervision after it found a spate of tiny structural imperfections in the joints where the carbon-fibre barrel sections are bolted together.

“These claims about the structural integrity of the 787 are inaccurate and do not represent the comprehensive work Boeing has done to ensure the quality and long-term safety of the aircraft,” the plane maker said in a statement responding to the allegations, which were reported earlier Tuesday by the New York Times.

Company engineers are “completing exhaustive analysis to determine any long-term inspection and maintenance required, with oversight from the FAA,” Boeing said.

The latest allegations cast Boeing in an unfavourable light as it grapples with a crisis of confidence after the Jan. 5 panel blowout. While nobody on that flight was seriously hurt, the issue has put the spotlight on Boeing’s manufacturing and safety procedures and has led to a wholesale makeover of senior management. The crisis has jolted investors as well.

Mr Salehpour plans to discuss the manufacturing shortfalls he witnessed during the hearing before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations scheduled for April 17th.

In a March 19th letter to Mr Calhoun, Blumenthal and Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson, the panel’s top-ranking Republican, asked for Boeing’s “immediate co-operation” with the panel’s review of Salehpour’s allegations.

Mr Salehpour’s attorneys flagged the issues to the FAA in a whistleblower letter dated January 19th. The agency has launched an investigation and interviewed Salehpour, his attorneys said, adding that other whistleblowers have come forward.

“Voluntary reporting without fear of reprisal is a critical component in aviation safety,” the FAA said in a statement. “We strongly encourage everyone in the aviation industry to share information. We thoroughly investigate all reports.”

Boeing disputed his attorney’s suggestion that in-service 787 Dreamliners face shorter commercial lives. The company said it has confirmed the finding through extensive fatigue testing, including forces that were more than 10 times the maximum allowed in production.

Mr Salehpour said he raised his concerns to Boeing management but was ignored and ultimately transferred to the 777 program. There he claims to have also witnessed improper production practices after the plane maker ripped out a flawed robotic system without properly redesigning the relevant parts to match the new assembly process.

In a separate statement, Boeing said the claims were also inaccurate. “We are fully confident in the safety and durability of the 777 family,” the company said. – Bloomberg