Boeing whistleblower testifies before Congress about airliner safety

Allegations of major safety failures at Boeing were front and center on Wednesday during two hearings before Congress. 

The first session featured members of an expert panel that found serious flaws in Boeing's safety culture, and the second hearing will feature a Boeing whistleblower who claims that sections of the skin on 787 Dreamliner jets are not properly fastened and could eventually break apart. 

The first hearing began at 11:15 a.m. ET.

Here’s what to know:

Who is the Boeing whistleblower Sam Salehpour?

FILE - A Boeing 787 Dreamliner taxis on the runway at San Francisco International Airport on April 24, 2019, in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

FILE - A Boeing 787 Dreamliner taxis on the runway at San Francisco International Airport on April 24, 2019, in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The whistleblower, Sam Salehpour, is a Boeing quality engineer who has detailed safety concerns involving the manufacture and assembly of the 787 Dreamliner. 

Salehpour’s concerns were featured in a New York Times article earlier this month

According to that account, he worked on the 787 but grew alarmed over changes to the assembly of the fuselage, the main body of the aircraft. That process entails fitting together and fastening giant sections of the fuselage, each one produced by a different company, according to Salehpour’s account.

Salehpour told the Times he believed Boeing was taking shortcuts that led to excessive force in the assembly process, creating deformations in the composite material used in the aircraft’s outer skin. Such composites often consist of plastic layers reinforced by a mesh of carbon or glass fibers, increasing tensile strength and making them a useful substitute for heavier metals.

But composites can lose those benefits if they are twisted or otherwise deformed. Salehpour alleged that such problems could create increased material fatigue, possibly leading to premature failure of the composite, according to the Times account. 

Over thousands of flights, those pieces of fuselage could risk breaking apart mid-flight.

Why is he testifying?

Salehpour testified Wednesday before a Senate investigations subcommittee. Another Boeing whistleblower — Ed Pierson, a former manager on the Boeing 737 program — and two other aviation technical experts are also on the witness list.

According to Salehpour’s account to the Times, Boeing not only failed to take his concerns seriously, it silenced him and transferred him to work on a different jetliner, a move he took as retaliation.

Salehpour’s lawyer says Boeing prevented him from talking to experts about fixing the defects.

The Federal Aviation Administration has been investigating Salehpour’s allegations since February, according to the subcommittee. 

The Democrat who chairs the panel and its senior Republican have asked Boeing for troves of documents going back six years. The lawmakers are seeking all records about manufacturing of Boeing 787 and 777 planes, including any safety concerns or complaints raised by Boeing employees, contractors or airlines. 

Some of the questions seek information about Salehpour's allegations about poorly fitted carbon-composite panels on the Dreamliner.

A Boeing spokesperson said the company is cooperating with the lawmakers' inquiry and offered to provide documents and briefings.

The first hearing, being held by the Senate Commerce Committee, is scheduled to include members of an expert panel that examined safety at Boeing. The group said that despite improvements made after the Max crashes, Boeing's safety culture remains flawed and employees who raise concerns could be subject to pressure and retaliation.

What else has Boeing said?

Boeing says claims about the 787's structural integrity are false. 

In a 1,500 word statement following the Times story, Boeing said it was "fully confident" in the 787 and called concerns about structural integrity "inaccurate." Boeing added that the issues raised in the Times story "do not present any safety concerns" and said the 787 "will maintain its service life over several decades."

"Retaliation is strictly prohibited at Boeing," the company added in the statement, noting that it encourages employees to "speak up when issues arise."

This week, two Boeing engineering executives said that in both design testing and inspections of planes — some of them 12 years old — there have been no findings of fatigue or cracking in the composite panels. They suggested that the material, formed from carbon fibers and resin, is nearly impervious to fatigue that is a constant worry with conventional aluminum fuselages.

The Boeing officials also dismissed another of Salehpour's allegations: that he saw factory workers jumping on sections of fuselage on 777s to make them align.

CEO David Calhoun, who will step down at the end of the year, has said many times that Boeing is taking steps to improve its manufacturing quality and safety culture. 

Past Boeing incidents 

Boeing’s safety record has been under a microscope since a door panel on a 737 Max 9 jet blew out over Oregon in early January. The panel plugged a space left for an extra emergency door on the jet, which was operated by Alaska Airlines. Pilots were able to land safely, and there were no injuries.

But accident investigators’ subsequent discovery of missing bolts intended to secure the panel rocked Boeing, which once boasted an enviable safety culture. 

Alaska Airlines and United Airlines — the two U.S. carriers that fly the Max 9 — also reported finding loose bolts and other hardware in other panels, suggesting that quality issues with the door plugs were not limited to one plane.

Both the 787 and the 737 Max have been plagued by production defects that have sporadically held up deliveries and left airlines short of planes during busy travel seasons.

The company faces a criminal investigation by the Justice Department and separate investigations by the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. It was reported from Cincinnati.