An Alaska Airlines MAX-9 jet
An Alaska Airlines 737 MAX-9 jet, tail number N924AK, departs Santa Barbara on September 21st, 2023 (Photo: Glenn Beltz, reproduced under a Creative Commons license)

Wash­ing­ton State’s two Unit­ed States Sen­a­tors today issued strong­ly-word­ed calls for Boe­ing to be sub­ject­ed to greater over­sight and account­abil­i­ty fol­low­ing the pub­li­ca­tion of a whistle­blow­er account of what went wrong in the Ren­ton fac­to­ry where the Alas­ka Air­lines 737 MAX‑9 jet that lost a door plug was made.

The whistle­blow­er account, post­ed as a com­ment on an avi­a­tion news web­site, was inves­ti­gat­ed by The Seat­tle Times, which found sources who cor­rob­o­rat­ed the infor­ma­tion. The Seat­tle Times’ ace avi­a­tion reporter Dominic Gates then wrote a front page sto­ry detail­ing what Boe­ing work­ers think went wrong.

Sen­a­tor Maria Cantwell, who chairs the Com­merce Com­mit­tee, promised to use her sig­nif­i­cant pow­ers to con­vene hear­ings on the mat­ter fol­low­ing a meet­ing with Boe­ing’s embat­tled chief exec­u­tive office Dave Calhoun.

“The Amer­i­can fly­ing pub­lic and Boe­ing line work­ers deserve a cul­ture of lead­er­ship at Boe­ing that puts safe­ty ahead of prof­its,” said Cantwell.

“In today’s meet­ing with Boe­ing CEO Dave Cal­houn, I made it clear that qual­i­ty engi­neer­ing and a com­mit­ment to safe­ty always have to be the top pri­or­i­ty. Hard­work­ing engi­neers and machin­ists in the Pacif­ic North­west know this.”

“Recent report­ing by the Seat­tle Times and oth­er out­lets under­scores the urgency of the sit­u­a­tion. I will be hold­ing hear­ings to inves­ti­gate the root caus­es of these safe­ty lapses.”

Hours lat­er, Sen­a­tor Pat­ty Mur­ray, who chairs the Appro­pri­a­tions Com­mit­tee, made sim­i­lar com­ments and not­ed the impor­tance of fund­ing for the FAA to ensure that there is effec­tive ongo­ing over­sight of Boe­ing’s com­mer­cial air­planes divi­sion, which makes pas­sen­ger jets for air­lines all over the world.

“Report­ing by the Seat­tle Times that seems to show seri­ous safe­ty laps­es and fail­ures in the qual­i­ty con­trol process­es at Boe­ing is absolute­ly alarm­ing. Prof­its can’t come before safe­ty — ever — and top exec­u­tives at Boe­ing real­ly need to get that — the work­ers I have spo­ken to over the years who are tasked with actu­al­ly build­ing these planes cer­tain­ly do,” said Sen­a­tor Murray.

“Boe­ing has a respon­si­bil­i­ty to the pub­lic that it will always put the safe­ty and qual­i­ty of its planes first and that it will give its work­ers the sup­port and resources they need to deliv­er on that mission.”

“Just today, the FAA approved the inspec­tion and repair pro­to­col to bring the Boe­ing 737 MAX 9 air­craft back into ser­vice. But it is extreme­ly impor­tant for the NTSB to con­duct a full inves­ti­ga­tion to get to the bot­tom of exact­ly what hap­pened, why, and how Boe­ing and the FAA will pre­vent it from ever hap­pen­ing in the future — I’ll be review­ing their find­ings and rec­om­men­da­tions closely.”

“As Chair of the Appro­pri­a­tions Com­mit­tee, my staff and I are con­tin­u­ing to ask ques­tions and are work­ing to pass a Trans­porta­tion Appro­pri­a­tions bill that invests in air safe­ty and includes crit­i­cal fund­ing for the FAA — it should be clear to every­one that we absolute­ly can­not afford to short­change pas­sen­ger safe­ty by enter­tain­ing dra­mat­ic across-the board fund­ing cuts like some House Repub­li­cans have been demand­ing,” Mur­ray concluded.

The whistle­blow­er account that has avi­a­tion insid­ers talk­ing appeared as a com­ment to a sto­ry from “throwawayboeingN704AL” post­ed on Lee­ham News and Analy­sis, a more than ten year old online pub­li­ca­tion that prides itself on its long his­to­ry of “annoy­ing OEMs,” which is short for “orig­i­nal equip­ment manufacturer.”

The site’s About page proud­ly states: “Lee­ham News is the inde­pen­dent voice that cuts through the spin to deliv­er sto­ries with ver­i­fied facts, analy­sis and con­tent that becomes a must read every day.”

Here is the whistle­blow­er account in its entire­ty:

Cur­rent Boe­ing employ­ee here – I will save you wait­ing two years for the NTSB report to come out and give it to you for free: the rea­son the door blew off is stat­ed in black and white in Boe­ings [sic] own records. It is also very, very stu­pid and speaks vol­umes about the qual­i­ty cul­ture at cer­tain por­tions of the business.

A cou­ple of things to cov­er before we begin:

Q1) Why should we believe you?
A) You shouldn’t, I’m some ran­dom throw­away account, do your own due dili­gence. Oth­ers who work at Boe­ing can ver­i­fy what I say is true, but all I ask is you con­sid­er the fol­low­ing based on its own merits.

Q2) Why are you doing this?
A) Because there are many cul­tures at Boe­ing, and while the exec­u­tive cul­ture may be through­ly [sic] com­pro­mised since we were bought by McD, there are many oth­er peo­ple who still push for a qual­i­ty prod­uct with cut­ting edge design. My hope is that this is the wake up call that final­ly forces the Board to take deci­sive action, and remove the exec­u­tives that are resist­ing the nec­es­sary cul­tur­al changes to return to a com­pa­ny that val­ues safe­ty and qual­i­ty above schedule.

With that out of the way… why did the left hand (LH) mid-exit door plug blow off of the 737–9 reg­is­tered as N704AL? Sim­ple- as has been cov­ered in a num­ber of arti­cles and videos across avi­a­tion chan­nels, there are 4 bolts that pre­vent the mid-exit door plug from slid­ing up off of the door stop fit­tings that take the actu­al pres­sur­iza­tion loads in flight, and these 4 bolts were not installed when Boe­ing deliv­ered the air­plane, our own records reflect this.

The mid-exit doors on a 737–9 of both the reg­u­lar and plug vari­ety come from Spir­it already installed in what is sup­posed to be the final con­fig­u­ra­tion and in the Ren­ton fac­to­ry, there is a job for the doors team to ver­i­fy this “final” install and rig­ging meets draw­ing require­ments. In a healthy pro­duc­tion sys­tem, this would be a “belt and sus­penders” sort of check, but the 737 pro­duc­tion sys­tem is quite far from healthy, its a ram­bling, sham­bling, dis­as­ter wait­ing to hap­pen. As a result, this check job that should find min­i­mal defects has in the past 365 cal­en­dar days record­ed 392 non­con­form­ing find­ings on 737 mid fuse­lage door instal­la­tions (so both actu­al doors for the high den­si­ty con­figs, and plugs like the one that blew out). That is a hideous­ly high and very alarm­ing num­ber, and if our qual­i­ty sys­tem on 737 was healthy, it would have stopped the line and dri­ven the issue back to sup­pli­er after the first few instances. Obvi­ous­ly, this did not hap­pen. Now, on the inci­dent air­craft this check job was com­plet­ed on 31 August 2023, and did turn up dis­crep­an­cies, but on the RH side door, not the LH that actu­al­ly failed. I could blame the team for miss­ing cer­tain details, but giv­en the enor­mous vol­ume of defects they were already find­ing and fix­ing, it was inevitable some­thing would slip through- and on the inci­dent air­craft some­thing did. I know what you are think­ing at this point, but grab some pop­corn because there is a plot twist com­ing up.

The next day on 1 Sep­tem­ber 2023 a dif­fer­ent team (remem­ber 737s flow through the fac­to­ry quite quick­ly, 24 hours com­plete­ly changes who is work­ing on the plane) wrote up a find­ing for dam­aged and improp­er­ly installed riv­ets on the LH mid-exit door of the inci­dent aircraft.

A brief aside to explain two of the record sys­tems Boe­ing uses in pro­duc­tion. The first is a pro­gram called CMES which stands for some­thing bor­ing and unim­por­tant but what is impor­tant is that CMES is the sole author­i­ta­tive repos­i­to­ry for air­plane build records (except on 787 which uses a dif­fer­ent pro­gram). If a build record in CMES says some­thing was built, inspect­ed, and stamped in accor­dance with the draw­ing, then the air­plane damn well bet­ter be per draw­ing. The sec­ond is a pro­gram called SAT, which also stands for some­thing bor­ing and unim­por­tant but what is impor­tant is that SAT is *not* an author­i­ta­tive records sys­tem, its a bul­lentin [sic] board where var­i­ous things affect­ing the air­plane build get post­ed about and updat­ed with res­o­lu­tions. You can think of it sort of like a idiots ver­sion of Slack or some­thing. Wise read­ers will already be shud­der­ing and won­der­ing how many con­sul­tants were involved, because, yes SAT is a *man­age­ment vis­i­bilty [sic] tool*. Like any good man­age­ment vis­i­bilty [sic] tool, SAT can gen­er­ate met­rics, lots of met­rics, and oh God do Boe­ing man­agers love their met­rics. As a result, SAT post­ings are the pri­ma­ry top­ic of dis­cus­sion at most dai­ly sta­tus meet­ings, and the whole sys­tem is per­ceived as being extreme­ly impor­tant despite, I reit­er­ate, it hold­ing no actu­al author­i­ty at all.

We now return to our inci­dent air­craft, which was writ­ten up for hav­ing defec­tive riv­ets on the LH mid-exit door. Now as is stan­dard prac­tice kn Ren­ton (but not to my knowl­edge in Everett on wide bod­ies) this write-up hap­pened in two forms, one in CMES, which is the cor­rect venue, and once in SAT to “coor­di­nate the response” but real­ly as a behind-cov­er­ing mea­sure so the man­ag­er of the team that wrote it can show his boss he’s shoved the prob­lem onto some­one else. Because there are so many prob­lems with the Spir­it build in the 737, Spir­it has teams on site in Ren­ton per­form­ing war­ran­ty work for all of their shod­dy qual­i­ty, and this SAT prompt­ly gets shunt­ed into their queue as a war­ran­ty item. Lots of bick­er­ing ensues in the SAT mes­sages, and it takes a bit for Spir­it to get to the work pack­age. Once they have fin­ished, they send it back to a Boe­ing QA for final accep­tance, but then Mali­cious Stu­pid Hap­pens! The Boe­ing QA writes anoth­er record in CMES (again, the cor­rect venue) stat­ing (with pic­tures) that Spir­it has not actu­al­ly reworked the dis­crepant riv­ets, they *just paint­ed over the defects*. In Boe­ing pro­duc­tion speak, this is a “process fail­ure”. For an A&P mechan­ic at an air­line, this would be called “fed­er­al crime”.

Pre­sent­ed with evi­dence of their malfea­sance, Spir­it reopens the pack­age and admits that not only did they not rework the riv­ets prop­er­ly, there is a dam­aged pres­sure seal they need to replace (who dam­aged it, and when it was dam­aged is not clear to me). The big deal with this seal, at least accord­ing to fran­tic SAT post­ings, is the part is not on hand, and will need to be ordered, which is going to impact sched­ule, and (read­ing between the lines here) Man­age­ment is Not Hap­py. 12

For those read­ers who don’t know, “McD” means “McDon­nell-Dou­glas,” which used to be a giant in the avi­a­tion indus­try before the com­pa­ny start­ed going down­hill. Boe­ing bought McDon­nell Dou­glas in 1997, but as sub­se­quent events revealed, it might as well have been McDon­nell Dou­glas that bought Boe­ing, because McD’s prof­it-focused exec­u­tives sub­se­quent­ly took over and began slow­ly destroy­ing Boe­ing from the inside out. A few decades lat­er, Boe­ing’s rep­u­ta­tion is in tat­ters and its future is in ques­tion. With each pass­ing year, it is falling fur­ther behind its main com­peti­tor Air­bus, the oth­er big man­u­fac­tur­er of pas­sen­ger jets.

“In a clash of cor­po­rate cul­tures, where Boeing’s engi­neers and McDon­nell Douglas’s bean-coun­ters went head-to-head, the small­er com­pa­ny won out,” Quartz assessed in a 2020 sto­ry look­ing back at the merg­er. “The result was a move away from expen­sive, ground-break­ing engi­neer­ing and toward what some called a more cut-throat cul­ture, devot­ed to keep­ing costs down and favor­ing upgrad­ing old­er mod­els at the expense of whole­sale innovation.”

For that sto­ry, Quartz’s Natasha Frost spoke to author Clive Irv­ing, author of Jum­bo: The Mak­ing of the Boe­ing 747, who com­ment­ed: “The fatal fault line was the McDon­nell Dou­glas takeover… Although Boe­ing was sup­posed to take over McDon­nell Dou­glas, it end­ed up the oth­er way around.”

That nice­ly sums up how many retired Boe­ing lif­ers feel about the merger.

Cur­rent Boe­ing CEO Dave Cal­houn is not a for­mer McDon­nell Dou­glas exec­u­tive, but he worked at Gen­er­al Elec­tric for decades and has been described by Irv­ing as a “Jack Welch acolyte.” Welch is the for­mer GE CEO who became famous for mon­ey­mak­ing schemes that gen­er­at­ed prof­its in the short term but led to dis­as­trous con­se­quences in the long term. By the time he passed away in 2020, his lega­cy as a busi­ness­man was already being reap­praised and reevaluated.

“Nev­er mind the fact Welch rou­tine­ly closed GE’s Rust Belt fac­to­ries and moved the jobs to Third World locales, where work­ers labored for less — much, much less — than the for­mer GE employ­ees,” wrote Helaine Olen in an essay for The Wash­ing­ton Post fol­low­ing Welch’s death. “Nev­er mind the fact that he cut fund­ing for research and devel­op­ment, some­thing that can under­mine a company’s long-term health. And nev­er mind the fact that the humane post­war arrange­ment between cor­po­ra­tions and their employ­ees — give us your loy­al­ty and we’ll take care of you as best we can — end­ed in part because of Welch. He made mon­ey for share­hold­ers, and that was the impor­tant thing.”

“Cal­houn rep­re­sents a par­tic­u­lar­ly aggres­sive strain of car­niv­o­rous cap­i­tal­ism,” Irv­ing wrote in a 2021 piece for The Dai­ly Beast. “He’s aggres­sive­ly anti-union and anti-reg­u­la­tion, and at Boe­ing he is unre­pen­tant in his zeal to slash and burn. Dur­ing the course of this year, the work­force will have been cut by twen­ty per­cent. Plants have been shut­tered, build­ings sold off.”

On the com­mer­cial avi­a­tion side — Boe­ing also has a large defense busi­ness — the 737 MAX is Boe­ing’s sig­na­ture prod­uct and its main mon­ey­mak­er. It is the lat­est iter­a­tion of a nar­row­body jet that has been pop­u­lar with air­lines for a long time, includ­ing U.S. air­lines. South­west, for instance, has built its busi­ness around the 737. So has Alas­ka. Unit­ed and oth­ers also have lots of 737s in their fleet.

But the 737 MAX pro­gram has now become even more trou­bled and rid­dled with safe­ty issues than the repeat­ed­ly-delayed and glitch-rid­den 787 Dreamliner.

Two fatal crash­es in 2018 forced the ground­ing of the 737 MAX and led to the jet and Boe­ing’s busi­ness prac­tices being put under the micro­scope. It emerged that Boe­ing had cut cor­ners in its rush to get the MAX into ser­vice with air­lines — and that the FAA had failed to inter­vene to pro­tect the safe­ty of the fly­ing public.

The fall­out was mas­sive — and cost­ly. Yet it has not prompt­ed a change of cul­ture at Boe­ing. The com­pa­ny fired CEO Den­nis Muilen­burg (who, by the way, got a nice gold­en para­chute), but it then brought in car­niv­o­rous cap­i­tal­ist Cal­houn, who, like his pre­de­ces­sors, has been focused on the stock price and prof­its rather than on build­ing a sus­tain­able busi­ness pow­ered by skilled union workers.

The Inter­na­tion­al Asso­ci­a­tion of Machin­ists (IAM) has been try­ing to use its influ­ence to pull Boe­ing out of its tail­spin for years, fierce­ly object­ing to plans from man­age­ment to gut qual­i­ty assur­ance in the fac­to­ry. But Cal­houn and his exec­u­tives have mad­den­ing­ly not been recep­tive to their feed­back or criticisms.

And so, here we are, with the 737 MAX pro­gram in cri­sis again and the FAA grim­ly halt­ing Boe­ing’s planned expan­sion of MAX production.

“We ground­ed the Boe­ing 737–9 MAX with­in hours of the inci­dent over Port­land and made clear this air­craft would not go back into ser­vice until it was safe,” FAA Admin­is­tra­tor Mike Whitak­er said in a state­ment. “The exhaus­tive, enhanced review our team com­plet­ed after sev­er­al weeks of infor­ma­tion gath­er­ing gives me and the FAA con­fi­dence to pro­ceed to the inspec­tion and main­te­nance phase.

“How­ev­er, let me be clear: This won’t be back to busi­ness as usu­al for Boe­ing. We will not agree to any request from Boe­ing for an expan­sion in pro­duc­tion or approve addi­tion­al pro­duc­tion lines for the 737 MAX until we are sat­is­fied that the qual­i­ty con­trol issues uncov­ered dur­ing this process are resolved.”

Poof! There’s the lat­est con­fir­ma­tion that Cal­houn’s plans for 2024 have gone up in smoke. All of that cor­ner cut­ting has once again not only jeop­ar­dized the safe­ty of pas­sen­gers and air­crew, it’s wreak­ing hav­oc on Boe­ing’s finan­cial health.

As long­time avi­a­tion jour­nal­ist Andy Pasz­tor wrote this week in a guest essay for The Seat­tle Times, Boe­ing’s man­u­fac­tur­ing and eth­i­cal laps­es go back decades. Its exec­u­tives have a doc­u­ment­ed his­to­ry of promis­ing to do bet­ter and then fail­ing to deliv­er. Why should any­one believe that things will be dif­fer­ent now? Since Cal­houn and Boe­ing can’t be trust­ed, it is vital­ly impor­tant that the Fed­er­al Avi­a­tion Admin­is­tra­tion and Con­gress step in to strength­en avi­a­tion safety.

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

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