Profit over safety: Boeing supplier ignored safety warnings before jet door blowout, The Lever reports

Warnings went unheeded, and the employees were told to falsify records, according to a new investigation by The Lever on a federal complaint filed by workers at Spirit.

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Less than a month before a door plug on a Boeing aircraft blew off midflight, employees at Spirit AeroSystems, a subcontractor for Boeing, had tried to warn corporate officials about serious safety problems with parts for 737 MAX jets. But those warnings went unheeded, and the employees were told to falsify records, according to a new investigation by The Lever on a federal complaint filed by workers at Spirit. “In some cases, workers were retaliated against for trying to raise those alarms,” says journalist David Sirota. “These workers in this federal complaint are alleging essentially a culture of defects, a culture of fraud, a culture of retaliation.”

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show with a breaking story, an update on the Boeing 737 MAX 9 jets that remain grounded after a refrigerator-sized fuselage door plug blew off on Friday on an Alaska Airlines plane in the air near Portland, Oregon. Officials with Alaska Airlines and United Airlines say they found loose bolts and other problems on some of the jets that have since been grounded.

Meanwhile, the online news outlet The Lever is reporting workers at a Boeing subcontractor were told to falsify records after inspection teams found, quote, “excessive amounts of defects” in parts being made for Boeing. Spirit AeroSystems reportedly manufactured the door that blew out on the Alaska Airlines flight 16,000 feet in the air. The Lever reports a group of Spirit shareholders filed a federal complaint last year saying Spirit executives had, quote, “prioritized production numbers and short-term financial outcomes over product quality.” Spirit was established nearly two decades ago as a spinoff of Boeing.

We’re joined now by The Lever‘s editor-in-chief, David Sirota. The investigation is headlined “Boeing Supplier Ignored Warnings of ’Excessive Amount of Defects,’ Former Employees Allege.” David is also editor-at-large for Jacobin.

David, welcome back to Democracy Now! Thanks for joining us from Denver. Why don’t you lay out what you just exposed?

DAVID SIROTA: Sure. Just a few days before — excuse me, a few weeks before the debacle over Portland, Oregon, court documents were filed by those shareholders that included allegations from safety officials, employees at the subcontractor, that basically allege a culture of defective products, a lack of quality control, and a retaliation — culture of retaliation against workers who were trying to sound the alarm. These workers say that they had found, as you said, excessive defects in the construction and production of these fuselages, that they tried to sound the alarm with corporate officials, with managers, including, by the way, the then-CEO of the company, and that they were retaliated against for raising those alarms.

And some of the specifics of the allegations relate to what we were now learning, the loose bolts situation as one example. One of the workers alleges that the calibration of the tools that tighten those bolts, that they had found problems in the calibration of those tools and that they had gone to management and said, “We have a systemic problem here,” and, again, that those warnings were ignored and that in some cases workers were retaliated against for trying to raise those alarms. At one point one of the workers, in an email and in an ethics complaint at the company, says, “Effectively, you’re asking us to report inaccurate information about the safety of the products that we’re putting out there,” the products, of course, being those components of the fuselage.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, David, could you talk a little more about the relationship between Spirit and Boeing, given the fact that this is such a key component of a plane, the fuselage, that it would be contracted out? Why did Boeing spin off Spirit to begin with?

DAVID SIROTA: It’s a great question. But I can say this: The company at issue says that its major — its most important piece of business is building these fuselages. So, when we call this company a subcontractor, it is — it’s smaller than Boeing — but we’re talking about a publicly traded company, a big company, whose primary business, whose main business, is producing this for Boeing, doing these fuselages, which, as you say, is an essential part of the plane. So, to be clear, this is not some small subcontractor that kind of Boeing ignored or didn’t know much about, right? This is a major company, headed now, by the way, by a former Boeing official, a former Boeing official who had served in the Trump administration as a Pentagon official. And, of course, Boeing and the Pentagon have a huge relationship in terms of military production. So, this is a big company.

And it does raise questions about not only the FAA’s oversight of the safety situation in building planes, but also in Boeing’s own oversight of its own subcontractors and partners. To be clear, the FAA in the past, in the past couple years, has twice named Spirit AeroSystems in its allegations against Boeing related to the 737 and safety issues.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what did you find in terms of the FAA’s ability to conduct the necessary oversight over not only Spirit and Boeing, but, I guess, other aircraft manufacturers?

DAVID SIROTA: Well, look, experts told us that part of the problem here is that there are now so many subcontractors, and the FAA has not had the funding necessary to do what these experts say is the necessary kind of inspections and oversight over these contractors, that it’s now not just one central company, that it’s a company like Boeing but with all sorts of subcontractors that federal officials don’t necessarily — haven’t necessarily been supervising as tightly as they could, don’t have necessarily the funding to supervise them.

Now, of course, this is a company that we’re talking about, Spirit AeroSystems, that received $75 million very recently as a federal subsidy during the pandemic. So, this company is also — has also gotten government money, while at the same time these workers, in this federal complaint, are alleging, essentially, a culture of defects, a culture of fraud, a culture of retaliation — certainly not, they’re alleging, a culture that hasn’t rewarded them for sounding the alarm about safety concerns.

AMY GOODMAN: What were Spirit ties to President Trump?

DAVID SIROTA: Well, again, the CEO, the current CEO, the new CEO, of Spirit AeroSystems was a Boeing official before that and, in the interim, was an official in the — a deputy secretary of defense under Donald Trump.

AMY GOODMAN: So, one of the ways you find out, when the — when this is all being investigated, you go to the cockpit voice recorder. Amazingly, it has been overwritten, right? Alaska Air, Boeing said it happens very quickly. So they can’t even go to the voice recorder?

DAVID SIROTA: Apparently. I mean, I think there’s going to be a very detailed investigation into this, because now you’ve got planes grounded. You’ve got the — I mean, these planes are now a central part of the American civil aeronautics infrastructure in this country, and you had a door blowout. So I think there’s going to be a serious investigation to understand whether or not these problems are in fact systemic.

And again, I go back to what the workers say in this federal complaint. They are alleging this is not — this kind of thing is not an anomaly, that it is a systemic culture of defects. And again, in reading this complaint, one of the most disturbing parts is the allegation — I mean, this is a direct quote — quote, “We are being asked to purposely record inaccurate information.” And in a situation where the FAA does not necessarily have the resources or the wherewithal to oversee such subcontractors, it hasn’t been stringently overseeing them, in a sense, the public is relying on these companies to provide accurate information. And you have in this federal complaint, again, a worker saying, “We are being asked to purposely record inaccurate information,” about safety.

AMY GOODMAN: And put this into the context of what happened in 2019. We’ve been focusing on this in the last few days. We spoke to Ralph Nader, whose grandniece, Samya Stumo — and we spoke to her mother, Nadia Milleron — died in the Ethiopian Airlines flight, a Boeing MAX 8, also Indonesia’s flight. We’re talking about over 300 people. All the people on board, crew and passengers, in both planes died. I want to go to the National Transportation Safety Board saying it couldn’t tell whether the recovered cabin panel that blew off Alaska Airlines’ MAX 9 plane in midair last week had been properly attached. The NTSB chair is Jennifer Homendy. She said the NTSB focus is on the accident plane, but it would also make broader safety recommendations, if needed, as the investigation progresses.

JENNIFER HOMENDY: Now, the cockpit door, we found today that the cockpit door is designed to open during rapid decompression. It is designed to open during rapid decompression. However, no one among the flight crew knew that. They were not informed. So, Boeing is going to make some changes to the manual, which then, hopefully, will translate into procedures and information for the flight attendants and for the crew.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, it’s just astounding that in this almost full flight, those seats next to the opening, the refrigerator-sized opening that opened, there was no one sitting in those seats, which may account for the fact that no one died. It’s absolutely astounding. But, David Sirota, as we wrap up, the progression from the two MAX flights that went down, those MAX planes, MAX 8, were grounded for almost two years, but now they’re back in service as MAX 9 with some little change, and now these are being grounded or canceled, whether it’s United or Alaska Airlines. Where is this all headed?

DAVID SIROTA: Well, I think the question has to be: How did this — how did this progression happen? What was fueling it? And it’s important to contextualize this with the fact that the company, Boeing, and its subcontractors, obviously, have been under pressure to try to ramp up production as other major manufacturers have gained market share, companies like Airbus, for instance. You have a situation where the workers, in this complaint, are saying, “We are under pressure to ramp up production without regard necessarily for quality,” so the point being that when you read this federal complaint, when you read these documents, the context of this is ultimately financial in these allegations, that the company so focused on trying to produce more and more, that these workers are alleging that quality control has fallen by the wayside. So I think the question, Amy, is: Is the progression that you’ve laid out, is it part of an inevitable pattern? Is it the logical result, the horrifying result, but the logical result, of a culture of production over the most basic quality control that is supposed to be protecting the public?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, David, I wanted to ask you — I was struck, in particular, by — in your article, by the mention of court documents by a Joshua Dean, who was a former quality auditor for Spirit, who raised issues of major, major defects as far back as October of 2022, long before Boeing publicly admitted any kinds of defects, and yet he not only was consistently overlooked, his complaints, but he was eventually fired?

DAVID SIROTA: That’s right. The complaint says that this person was fired — that’s correct — in raising that alarm about what were called misdrilled or misplaced holes that were drilled in the bulkhead in the fuselage. And what’s interesting here is that this all comes out of a shareholder lawsuit. Shareholders are effectively alleging that the executives, who were making positive statements about the company publicly, were being warned by employees internally that the statements that they were making about safety were inaccurate. And so the shareholders are saying that they, as shareholders, were effectively defrauded, that they have a right to honest, accurate information from executives at the companies that they own.

So that’s the other question here, is: How much did management at either Boeing or Spirit AeroSystems know about this? And again, in this complaint, one of the most important parts of this is you have an email from one of these employees raising the alarm, an email sent directly to the then-CEO of the company, saying that this was — this person, the person writing the email, this is my, quote, “last resort. I, effectively, can’t get any answers.”

AMY GOODMAN: David Sirota, we want to thank you for being with us, editor-in-chief of The Lever, which has just published a major new investigation — we’ll link to it — “Boeing Supplier Ignored Warnings of ‘Excessive Amount of Defects,’ Former Employees Allege.” I also encourage people to go to our past segments in the last few days, “’Wake-Up Call’: Mother of Boeing Crash Victim & Boeing Whistleblower on Latest MAX Jet Blowout.”

Next up, protesters calling for a ceasefire in Gaza interrupt President Biden’s campaign speech yesterday at the historic Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. A lot of people credit the presidential candidate Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor, with ultimately taking down the Confederate flag on the Capitol grounds. We’ll go to the woman who actually did take down that flag, after the massacre, and was arrested in the Nikki Haley administration for doing so. Stay with us.

AMY GOODMAN: Bree Newsome Bass, “Stay Strong: A Love Song to Freedom Fighters.” She’s our next guest.

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