Monday, April 17, at 11 a.m. ET

Blowing the Whistle on Boeing

Network News

X Profile
View More Activity
Florence Graves and Sara Kehaulani Goo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 17, 2006; 11:00 AM

Washington Post reporter Sara Kehaulani Goo and Florence Graves, director of the Brandeis University Institute for Investigative Journalism, were online Monday, April 17, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss alleged problems in aircraft manufacturing reported by three whistleblowers.

An article in today's Washington Post examines the case.

Read the transcript below:

____________________

Sara Kehaulani Goo: Welcome everyone. Thank you for joining us and we look forward to your questions!

_______________________

Oklahoma City, Okla.: Great article...what kind of follow-up can we expect?? Hope you don't just drop it here...this is just the first chapter...How can we resolve this problem...sounds to me like the government and Boeing are both playing plausible deniability and CYA games and putting up a lot of smoke to obscure some very serious issues.

Florence Graves: It's always impossible to know how an investigative story's findings will play out. Often, it is the constituencies affected by the story who push forward for the truth. In this case, the whistle-blower's have a lawsuit in play. If the lawsuit moves forwardthey are awaiting a ruling by a federal judge in Wichitathe case could lead to some bottom-line answers from Boeing and the FAA. In the case of the FAA, some people have told me it is up to Congress to get involved and demand answers to resolve issues such as these.

_______________________

Oklahoma City, Okla.: Where were the FAA Certification inspectors when all these parts were being put into aircraft? Isn't this basically a failure of the FAA in its oversight of certificated manufacturers?

Florence Graves: Several aviation experts have asked us the same questions. They have told us there is an FAA system in place that should have caught and documented these problems well before parts were installed on planes. In responses to our questions, the FAA never offered any information or documentation saying these parts were found to be approved by FAA inspectors as part of their oversight function prior to their being installed on airplanes or prior to the whistle-blowers bringing the questions to the FAA's attention. In fact, the FAA told us that the first time they heard about any problems was when the whistle-blowers told them about them in Spring 2002.

_______________________

Arlington, Va.: If the 737s are being "phased out," how soon will they be completely out of use? Is this something consumers who frequently travel in 737s should be concerned about?

Florence Graves: Boeing is now focusing its production on the Next Generation of 737s -- the 737NGs -- which are the 737-600s and above. The parts questioned by the whistleblowers were installed on several hundred 737NGs.

 The previous generation of 737s -- known as the Classics -- are numbered 737-300s, 400s, and 500s -- continue to be flown in the U.S. and especially in foreign countries all over the world. No one we interviewed has said they know for certain that there is any immediate safety concern. Engineers have told us it is not possible to make that determination without more information about how the parts were made combined with an analysis of where they were installed. Several experts told us that given the seriousness of the allegations, they believe the FAA should do a more thorough investigation.

They have told us that the public should be concerned that the FAA did not follow its own procedures to determine whether the parts were "approved" to be installed on airplanes.

_______________________

Anonymous: Did the parts comply with the original certification basis as to function? Do the parts comply with Boeing approved (by FAA) quality control standards? Have any airworthiness issues been documented by the FAA under the continued airworthiness reporting standards?

Florence Graves: The main point of our investigation is that FAA did not look at the thousands of parts reported by the whistleblowers as suspected unapproved parts. The whistleblowers say that because of the manufacturing problems they observed and reported to Boeing as key participants in a Boeing sponsored audit, they don't believe the parts at issue installed on airplanes met quality control standards. Again, your questions are questions the FAA should answer definitively.

The FAA has issued a number of Airworthiness Directives, the most serious form of warning issued by the FAA, related to a number of the same types of parts reported by the whistleblowers. However, the Airworthiness Directives were on 737 planes of the previous generation called the Classic -- 737-300, 400, 500. The whistleblowers say the parts they know about were installed on the Next Generation 737 or 737NG -- the 600s and above.

_______________________

Laurel, Md.: Since Boeing has almost no directly comparable competitors, do we know whether these practices would be standard and accepted in the industry, if there was a "rest of the industry" to compare Boeing to?

Sara Kehaulani Goo: That's a great question. It's true that Boeing does not have any direct US competitors but it does compete globally with Airbus, which is based in France. Airbus must meet FAA specifications for its planes to be certified to fly here. And smaller US aviation manufacturers such as Cessna, must also meet FAA requirements for manufacturing. The FAA rules are clear that manufacturers must outline certain design and manufacturing specifications that their suppliers must meet and if they don't, then they have to have a process in place to review a part that is not built according to design. That part is pretty standard across aviation from what we understand.

_______________________

Falls Church, Va.: Thank you for a very good article. Can you give any more details on which particular military aircrafts supposedly received faulty parts?

Florence Graves: Military planes questioned by the whistleblowers include 10 U.S. Navy planes --9 C40As and one C40B

19 U.S. Air Force planes--including C 40Cs,C40Bs C40B/Cs, C33, C32-As, AWACS

Also, the lawsuit names 17 planes sold to foreign militaries under the U.S. Foreign Military Sales program to countries such as Australia, Saudi Air Force, United Arab Emirates, Equatorial Guinea Government, Jordanian government, Pakistan, Royal Malaysian Air Force, South African Air Force, Taiwan Air Force, Yemen government, Italian Air Force, and Zazakhstan Government.

_______________________

Wary Traveler: I will miss the chat, so I'm submitting early. I am stunned that the plaintiffs had to hire an investigator because the FAA did not do its job.

Has the FAA responded to that? How does the timing & action match with Boeing moving its headquarters to the House Speaker's home state of Illinois?

Florence Graves: In our interviews, the FAA consistently maintained that no matter what others said, their investigation was complete.

_______________________

Harrisburg, Pa.: Is there any means that a random sample of these planes could be inspected to see whether or not they were improperly constructed?

Florence Graves: That is a question best answered by aviation safety engineers. As you read, our investigation found that FAA never fully looked into the reliability or safety of the thousands of parts questioned by the whistle-blowers.

_______________________

Raleigh, N.C.: As a shareholder of both companies, I follow DCO and BA closely. I am curious as to why you did not mention the 2/28/06 action by District Judge Wesley Brown? He threw out the case .... isn't that a critical issue to the point you are making in the article?

Sara Kehaulani Goo: Good point. The recent decision by the District Court in Kansas threw out several of the whistleblower's claims based on a lack of evidence for meeting requirements for the Federal False Claims Act. But the judge did not throw out the retaliation claims and he made very clear that his decision was not based on the merits of the case. The whistleblowers have refiled their claim with new evidence and we can't pretend to guess how the case will go forward (or not.) Regardless of whether the case moves ahead legally, we thought there was an important and compelling story to tell here about the manufacturing process.

Florence Graves: : I don't believe that the judge's rulings so far have made any statements on the actual substance of the allegations about thousands of unapproved parts installed on airplanes. The whistle-blowers' attorneys filed a second amended complaint a few weeks ago, supplying some of the information the judge requested. The lawsuit is still active.

_______________________

Los Angeles, Calif.: So let me get this straight: A company whose very survival depends on the quality and safety of its product (let's face it -- there's a MUCH higher penalty for Boeing if one of its products fails than just about any other manufacturer) says there's no technical problem.

The Department of Justice, the FAA, the NTSB all say, "Nope. No safety problem here." The case has been thrown out of court twice and reduced a third time.

And yet the Post hires a raft of outside consultants to chase this story?

I don't get it. Even the story itself has a certain subtext here of "Um. There's not a problem. But we already hired these consultants...."

Florence Graves: One major finding of our investigation is that the Federal Aviation Administration and its Suspected Unapproved Parts office, the Department of Justice, and the Department of Transportation Inspector General never looked at the thousands of parts and some 200 part types questioned by the whistleblowers.

_______________________

Wichita, Kan.: How did you become interested in this subject?

Florence Graves: Another journalist I know who couldn't do the story alerted me to it.

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: OK, ummm, does this mean a plane could fall out of the sky and how could Boeing be so careless??? Who do we call/sue/complain to?

Sara Kehaulani Goo: No, planes will not fall out of the sky! We wanted to be clear NOT to say that. In fact, there is a bit of debate based on safety experts we talked to about how serious the safety implications are for the jets. Some said it is hard to tell without looking at the parts installed on the planes and it seems there might be an issue of potential cracking areas as the plane ages. Others said they doubted there was much to be concerned about. What we hope the story does is provide an insight into the manufacturer's complicated process for building a plane and overseeing suppliers and the government's important role in overseeing both.

_______________________

Alexandria, Va.: Have any mechanical issues (there haven't been crashes, as your article states, but perhaps turnarounds, repairs, etc.) have been linked to this problem, if any?

Sara Kehaulani Goo: No. We talked to several carriers who fly a lot of the 737 NGs and they report no problems.

Florence Graves: In this story, we were addressing these suspected unapproved parts questioned by these whistleblowers, so we didn't have space to go into other background issues. We did mention that a Boeing Special Technical Audit of the Puget Sound area plants (conducted December 1, 1999 through February 11, 2000) revealed very serious systemic problems in a host of areas, including Boeing's manufacturing, supplier oversight, engineering procedures, and unapproved parts entering the system.

You could look for possible follow ups in the future at http://www.brandeis.edu/investigate--the website for The Brandeis Institute for Investigative Journalism which I direct. On Tuesday, we will post the Executive Summary of the Boeing Special Technical audit that was made public in August 2000.

_______________________

Sara Kehaulani Goo: Sorry for the delay. We are having technical problems here.

_______________________

Crownsville, Md.: The Bush administration has a history of hiring people who used to work in the industries they are now regulating and tend to bend over backwards to help those industries. Was there any evidence in your investigation that the FAA officials and other government officials involved in the investigation of these claims may have had a bias towards protecting Boeing?

Sara Kehaulani Goo: No, we have not found anything like that.

_______________________

Philadelphia, PA: As a follow up to your article, you need a better understanding of metal fatigue on aircraft. A small company near Seattle -- Fatigue Technology -- specializes in preventing metal fatigue in aircraft. It would be worth your while to contact their engineering department.

All metals fatigue and crack as a result of the cycling airplanes go through. So how many cycles are the planes compromised as a result of the imperfect holes? Hairline fractures begin at the edge of the holes, not somewhere in the middle of the metal. Once the cracks grow long enough they can act like a zipper. Certain things can add to the possibility of a crack initiating in fewer cycles, such as: making the holes larger than necessary, holes not being round, and holes not being properly reamed.

A number of years ago Aloha Airlines suddenly lost the top of its cabin during a flight from this type of metal fatigue.

Inspecting holes for hairline cracks is very much an art as opposed to a science. There are repairs which can extend the fatigue life of the metal, such as split sleeve cold expansion. Again, as part of a follow up piece, some of these details may be useful.

Florence Graves: Thank you so much for this important follow-up information.

_______________________

washingtonpost.com: Sorry for the delay folks, we're trying to work out some technical glitches.

_______________________

washingtonpost.com: Because of the technical issues, Sara and Florence will stick around for a bit beyond noon to take your questions. Thanks for your patience.

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: I have heard that FAA designates aircraft manufacturer employees to "act for FAA" in aircraft certification. Your story has allegations that Boeing pressured its employees to be quiet. Should there be more FAA inspectors employed by the agency or, as I've heard, FAA can't afford to hire people with the requisite expertise and has to use manufacturer employees?

Sara Kehaulani Goo: Good question. Yes, the FAA "designates" many people to certify the "airworthiness" or maintenence on its behalf. Many of these "designees" work directly for aviation manufacturers. So you can see that you would have to be very independent and respected within a company to stand up and say "No" on occasion to the company that writes your paycheck. We found that many of these designees were well respected in their field. On top of that, the FAA directly employs several hundred inspectors and they do regular checks on manufacturers and air carriers. There have been several government reports showing that these employees are increasingly stretched and shorthanded.

_______________________

Eagle River, Alaska: Hi, living in a state where you virtually have to fly anywhere this really upsets me. How many times have planes crashed because of some part they didn't think was significant? I can't imagine there is a part that's not significant or they wouldn't put it on a plane in the first place. I would hate to see airplane go down and then have everyone come back and say " oh we never new this would cause a problem." This is crazy by the way how much is a human life going for these days? It all comes down to money. It's sad.

Sara Kehaulani Goo: Thanks.

_______________________

Port Wentworth, Ga.: Did you review any data supporting the allegations and are there defective parts on the airplanes?

Sara Kehaulani Goo: Yes, we reviewed many, many documents that supported the allegations that there were manufacturing problems with the parts that Ducommun was making for Boeing during the 1999-2000 time frame. We know there are many Ducommun parts on Boeing planes. As to whether they are defective, that is something that we could not detemine even if we could look at them. We are not engineers and from what we understand, an engineer would have to look at it and compare it to the original design and assess the safety impact if it is not built according to design.

Florence Graves: Yes, we reviewed a lot of information. Some data is in the whistle-blowers' complaint -- excerpts from Boeing Supplier Evaluation reports -- indicating serious problems at the manufacturer and at Boeing during 1999 and 2000. In the documents released to us under the Freedom of Information Act about the FAA's suspected unapproved parts report -- the FAA made no mention of these reports about problems reported by Boeing quality people at the time they were finding them.

Neither the FAA nor Boeing would say whether or how they squared these reports with determinations there were no problems with the parts questioned by the whistleblowers.

As our story said, the FAA has opened another investigation and will have another opportunity to determine whether the parts on planes questioned by the whistleblowers are both approved and safe.

_______________________

Arlington, Va.: Early in the 1970's, I worked side by side with engineers from Boeing. Great group of people. I learned alot from them about high quality engineering and manufacturing. One of the jokes they liked to tell was about how they dealt with faulty parts. "Cut to form, hammer to fit and paint to match." It sounds like there was more to this joke than I realized!

Sara Kehaulani Goo: Wow! Thanks for sharing.

Florence Graves: In my interviews, I heard many compliments about the quality of Boeing engineers--especially in the days before these manufacturing issues were occurring. A number of people told us that almost all Boeing employees were under tremendous pressure to keep the production line moving so that more planes could be produced in a shorter amount of time.

_______________________

Springfield, Va.: In your article, I think that someone claimed that an airplance would have to be torn open to check for problems with some of the suspected unapproved parts. But aren't there forms of nondestructive testing, like X-rays and ultrasound, that are used routinely to detect fatigue cracks which could be used to examine at least samples of the suspected parts without disassembling large sections of an aircraft?

Sara Kehaulani Goo: Many of these parts are installed on the inner part of the fuselage structure that are not easily accessible in a passenger jet. I am aware of the testing techniques you mention and I don't know if they could have used them. It's a great question.

_______________________

Wilmington, N.C.: I am interested the psychology of the whistle-blowers. You mentioned in the article that one was "appalled" by what she saw. Did you ask the whistle-blowers any questions regarding their motivations to report these instances, even after they started receiving demotions, pay cuts, and received little support from the DOJ?

Florence Graves: The three whistleblowers--Jeannine Prewitt, Taylor Smith and James Ailes--each told us they felt they had a moral and ethical obligation to surface their allegations. They were terribly concerned and felt the quality and potential safety questions they raised about the thousands of parts needed to be thoroughly addressed by qualified personnel.

_______________________

Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

Discussion Archive

Viewpoint is a paid discussion. The Washington Post editorial staff was not involved in the moderation.

Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity