Boeing Parts and Rules Bent, Whistle-Blowers Say

For nearly 40 years, Boeing 737 airframes have been built in Wichita. In 2005, Boeing sold the plant to a Canadian company, which does that work under contract.
For nearly 40 years, Boeing 737 airframes have been built in Wichita. In 2005, Boeing sold the plant to a Canadian company, which does that work under contract. (By Dave Williams -- The Wichita Eagle)

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By Florence Graves and Sara Kehaulani Goo
Special to The Washington Post, Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 17, 2006

Jeannine Prewitt knew there was a problem when the holes wouldn't line up.

On a Boeing Co. assembly line in Kansas in 2000, Prewitt saw workers drilling extra holes in the long aluminum ribs that make up the skeleton of a jetliner's fuselage. That was the only way the workers could attach the pieces, because some of their pre-drilled holes didn't match those on the airframe.

Prewitt was a parts buyer, the third generation of her family to work at the sprawling Boeing factory on the outskirts of Wichita. She believed that pieces going into one of the world's most advanced and popular airliners, the Boeing 737, should fit like a glove.

The assembly workers Prewitt observed were not the only ones who noted problems with parts from a key Boeing supplier, AHF Ducommun of Los Angeles. Other workers told her that many pieces had to be shoved or hammered into place. And documents reviewed by The Washington Post show that quality managers reported numerous problems at Ducommun in memos recorded in Boeing's system for monitoring its suppliers.

Whether questionable parts ended up in hundreds of Boeing 737s is the subject of a bitter dispute between the aerospace company and Prewitt and two other whistle-blowers. The two sides also have enormously different views on what that could mean for the safety of the jets.

The whistle-blower lawsuit is in U.S. District Court in Wichita. No matter how it is resolved, it has exposed gaps in the way government regulators investigated the alleged problems in aircraft manufacturing, according to documents and interviews.

Boeing said that the lawsuit is without merit and that there is no safety issue. Even if faulty parts landed on the assembly line, the company said, none could have slipped through Boeing's controls and gotten into the jetliners. The whistle-blowers "are not intimately familiar with Boeing's quality management system," said Cindy Wall, a company spokeswoman. "Our planes are safe."

The three whistle-blowers, however, contend that Boeing officials knew from their own audits about thousands of parts that did not meet specifications, allowed them to be installed and retaliated against people who raised questions. They say the parts, manufactured from 1994 to 2002, fit the Federal Aviation Administration's definition of "unapproved" because they lack documentation proving that they are airworthy. Moreover, they say, forcing a part into place could shorten its lifespan.

Under the U.S. False Claims Act, plaintiffs who prove the government was defrauded -- more than two dozen jets went to the U.S. military -- could receive monetary damages along with the government.

After the whistle-blowers notified federal authorities in 2002, the FAA and the Pentagon looked into their charges. Each said its investigation cleared the airplane parts and found no reports of problems from military or civilian operators of Boeing jets. The Department of Transportation's inspector general also dismissed the charges.

The Post's review, however, found that the FAA did not assess many of the whistle-blowers' key allegations. FAA inspectors examined only a small number of parts in the plants and did not visit any airplanes to inspect the roughly 200 types of parts questioned by the whistle-blowers.

The Pentagon and Transportation Department, in turn, relied on the FAA's work, documents show.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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