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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)

Prewitt received a cash-and-stock bonus worth nearly $3,000 after what Boeing called her "outstanding contribution" to the audit. Soon, however, members of the team grew discouraged with what they saw as Boeing's reluctance to follow up on their findings. They said Boeing officials cleaned the report of details about possible airliner safety problems and violations of FAA procedures. When they raised the possibility of reporting their concerns to the FAA, they said, they were told to keep quiet or face possible legal action from Boeing.

Boeing said that it did not sanitize the report and that its policies prohibit threats or retaliation against employees who raise safety questions. Company spokeswoman Wall said the fact that the audit team was assembled shows that Boeing's oversight of suppliers is effective. She said that the team's mission was to look at "cost issues" regarding Ducommun's accounting and tools and that she does not know how the whistle-blowers on the team drew the conclusion that the parts were flawed. She said assessing quality was outside their area of expertise.

Eventually, the whistle-blowers came to believe that Boeing did not want to hear about anything that would be expensive to fix or would slow production. In the summer of 2000, Boeing was facing stiff competition from Airbus SAS. Boeing had recovered from recent production problems and was boosting its 737 output to 28 from 24 a month.

The auditors noted in their report that other Boeing plants were getting bad marks from the FAA. FAA inspectors looking into production breakdowns at the company's Pacific Northwest plants released in October 2000 the results of a special, months-long audit that found, among other things, inadequate planning, poor oversight of suppliers and nonconforming parts.

In early 2002, Prewitt, Smith and Ailes sent thousands of documents supporting their case to the Justice Department. They alleged that questionable parts had been installed not only on hundreds of 737s but also on some 747s, 757s, 767s and 777s and their military equivalents without the knowledge of the Air Force and Navy, the commercial airlines, or the FAA. Shortly after that, in March 2002, the three workers -- and one other whistle-blower who later dropped out -- filed their lawsuit.

In 2003, the whistle-blowers withdrew their suit after the Justice Department declined to join. They refiled it in March 2005. By then, Ailes was still employed at what is now Spirit AeroSystems in Wichita, but Prewitt and Smith had been laid off. All three allege they received demotions and lower job evaluations because of their actions.

FAA Probe

The lawsuit cites only those jets sold to the military, because the False Claims Act applies to only federal contracts. However, the whistle-blowers said most of the parts in question also had been installed on commercial airliners. So at the request of the Justice Department, the FAA launched a probe in the spring of 2002. It was handled by the division that investigates parts suspected to be "unapproved" -- ones that lack the paper trail showing they meet specifications.

FAA officials said that rather than restrict themselves to the more than 200 types of parts questioned by the whistle-blowers, their engineers reviewed a list of all Ducommun parts made for Boeing. They said they found most of the parts were unique to military planes. None of the commercial parts on their own, the engineers decided, were "principal structural elements," or parts whose individual failure could lead to a catastrophe. FAA officials, however, now say that some parts are in areas that are considered principal structural elements.

In the end, the engineers narrowed their list to 11 of the "most critical" Ducommun commercial parts and the FAA focused its investigation on how they were being made at the time of its probe. The agency said it has no official documents explaining the decision to eliminate hundreds of parts from investigation. That did not follow procedures adopted when the agency created an office devoted to investigation of suspect parts in 1995. Those rules require that FAA inspectors review the manufacturing history, quantity and importance of each part that is reported as suspect and then document their findings.

In the Wichita case, the report produced by the parts investigation office details only 11 types of parts, only one of which exactly matches a part number on the whistle-blowers' list. The FAA said a few part numbers represent families of parts. It could not say how many individual parts were considered. "It's a possible situation where the form was not filled out by the book," said Laura Brown, an FAA spokeswoman.

Beverly Sharkey, who heads the parts investigation office, said the agency decided not to physically inspect the parts already on aircraft because that would have required the "destructive testing or peeling apart" of hundreds of cabins. That was unnecessary, she said, because airlines had no reports of parts failures and the FAA had no reason to believe that there was a safety problem. Inspectors visited the Ducommun and Boeing factories and said they found no problems.

The military did not examine the parts questioned by the whistle-blowers, either, apparently because officials believed the FAA was doing it, according to a summary by the Defense Criminal Investigative Service, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act and first reported by Mother Jones magazine. Officials at the service declined to comment.

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