Boeing whistleblower warns 787 Dreamliner could fail due to assembly shortcuts

An EVA Air Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner jetliner (B-17881) lands at sunset, Vancouver International Airport, Richmond, B.C., on Sunday, Sept. 18, 2022. Bayne Stanley/The Canadian Press

Boeing is once again in the spotlight as a whistleblower comes forward with allegations that the plane-maker cut corners in the production of the 787 Dreamliner and 777 jet, shortening the lifespan of these long-haul planes and putting them at risk of a “catastrophic failure.”

Engineer Sam Salehpour claims that Boeing took shortcuts while building the 787 and 777 jets to save money and reduce bottlenecks during the assembly process. He believes the unsafe practices he witnessed have impacted the structural integrity of more than 1,000 Dreamliners and 400 777s.

Salehpour filed a formal whistleblower complaint to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in January, around the time Boeing came under intense public scrutiny when a door plug blew off a Boeing 737 Max 9 plane mid-air during an Alaska Airlines flight. Salehpour went public with his concerns during a Tuesday news conference.

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Boeing has been plagued with safety and quality issues. What does it mean for the plane-maker’s reputation?

“I love my work at Boeing and the opportunities that I have been given,” Salehpour said, according to the Seattle Times. “I’m doing this not because I want Boeing to fail, but because I want it to succeed and prevent crashes from happening.”

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The FAA confirmed to Global News that it is investigating Salehpour’s claims.

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

Boeing said it was fully confident in the 787 Dreamliner, adding that the claims “are inaccurate and do not represent the comprehensive work Boeing has done to ensure the quality and long-term safety of the aircraft.”

The company is also “fully confident in the safety and durability of the 777 family.”

The allegations

Salehpour, who has worked at Boeing since 2007 as a quality engineer, told reporters that sections of the main body, or fuselage, of the 787 Dreamliner are not fastened together properly and that little gaps exist where the parts are joined. Under the stress of repeated flying, the fuselage could break apart mid-air, he warned.

He noticed these issues in 2021, during a time when Boeing was already being scrutinized by the FAA.

Boeing was forced to halt deliveries of new Dreamliners from 2021 to 2022 after an issue with the joining of fuselage sections was discovered. By late 2022, the FAA had approved Boeing’s fix for the problem and allowed deliveries of 787s to resume.

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But Salehpour claims that Boeing’s solution hid the problem rather than fix it.

Click to play video: '‘Lack of awareness’ of safety guidelines at Boeing: FAA report'
‘Lack of awareness’ of safety guidelines at Boeing: FAA report

He alleges that Boeing allowed mechanics to use excessive force to push sections of the fuselage together “to make it appear like the gaps didn’t exist.” Under normal manufacturing procedures, small pieces of metal, called shims, are inserted into gaps to fill space. But Boeing allegedly cut corners by, in some cases, not inserting these shims to save time and money.

“I repeatedly produced reports for my supervisors and management based on Boeing’s own data demonstrating that the gaps in the 787 were not being properly measured,” Salehpour said.

Even after deliveries of the 787 were halted, Salehpour claims that these unsafe assembly practices continued.

Allowing such gaps to be unfilled could, over time, allow sections of the fuselage to move relative to one another, the Seattle Times reports. As the plane undergoes thousands of trips over its lifespan, the stress on the joints could one day “cause a catastrophic failure,” Salehpour said.

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Lisa Banks, one of Salehpour’s lawyers, said inserting shims “is a time-consuming process … and, of course, time is money.”

After Salehpour raised his concerns about the 787, he claims he faced retaliation from Boeing management, was shut out of meetings and was even threatened with physical violence. He was then transferred out of the 787 program and moved to work on the 777.

There, he witnessed even more issues.

The 777 also suffers from misalignments because assemblers used excessive force to jam parts together, Salehpour claims.

“I literally saw people jumping on the pieces of the airplane to get them to align,” Salehpour said. “By jumping up and down, you’re deforming parts so that the holes align temporarily … and that’s not how you build an airplane.”

Boeing’s woes

Salehpour’s allegations come as Boeing faces a steady stream of bad press related to mid-air accidents and concerns about the safety of its planes.

Boeing’s CEO, David Calhoun, announced that he will be resigning at the end of the year.

Click to play video: 'Boeing CEO to step down as embattled plane maker faces quality and safety crisis'
Boeing CEO to step down as embattled plane maker faces quality and safety crisis

Two months after the door plug blew off the Boeing 737 Max 9 in January, a tire fell off a Boeing jetliner shortly after takeoff at San Francisco International Airport. The tire smashed into cars and broke through a fence in a parking lot below.

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Just a handful of days after that, 50 people were injured onboard a Boeing Dreamliner when a “strong shake” followed by a sudden plunge in altitude caused people to “bounce off the roof,” as one passenger described.

Click to play video: '‘A massive jolt’: Boeing 787 plane drops mid-flight, injuring at least 50'
‘A massive jolt’: Boeing 787 plane drops mid-flight, injuring at least 50

Boeing is currently under investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration, the National Transportation Safety Board and the Department of Justice.

Recently, a different Boeing whistleblower, John Barnett, was found dead in his truck from an apparent suicide one day after testifying against the planemaker.

Salehpour’s allegations against Boeing will be the subject of a Senate subcommittee hearing on April 17.

— with files from Reuters


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