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Could ‘Break Up’: Boeing Whistleblower Alleges Structural Flaws in 787 Dreamliner

Boeing Whistleblower - Boeing 787 - photo by Artyom_Anikeev | iStock

Boeing whistleblower allegations are confronting the company with claims that its 787 Dreamliner aircraft possess structural defects potentially leading to disintegration after thousands of flights. These allegations intensify the ongoing challenges for Boeing.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is examining these claims, initially reported by Boeing engineer Sam Salehpour, according to The New York Times.

Boeing has firmly contested these allegations, expressing complete confidence in the 787’s integrity.

The new claims arise during a challenging period for the Virginia-based company, occurring two weeks after CEO Dave Calhoun and other top executives announced their resignations. This followed a series of reports criticizing the safety of its aircraft.

Calhoun described a door plug blowout on a Boeing 737 Max operated by Alaska Airlines in January as a pivotal event for Boeing. Now, under his leadership through the end of the year, the company is compelled to defend its safety practices and record once again.

Salehpour, a Boeing engineer with over ten years of service, has reported to the FAA that modifications in the manufacturing process led to the use of shortcuts. He claims these changes resulted in some sections of the aircraft’s fuselage being improperly joined, which could lead to structural failures after thousands of flights.

He informed The New York Times that the aircraft’s fuselage is composed of several large sections sourced from different manufacturers, which are assembled together on a production line.

In 2019, The Times interviewed additional whistleblowers at the Charleston, South Carolina facility where the 787 is manufactured. They claimed that there was pressure to expedite work on the aircraft and that safety concerns were disregarded.

One whistleblower, John Barnett, a former Boeing quality inspector who had voiced safety issues at the Charleston site, was found dead in the city in March while involved in legal proceedings against the company. A legal expert has indicated that his lawsuit may continue after his death.

Salehpour had previously communicated his concerns to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who leads the panel’s investigations subcommittee, stated on Tuesday that he had received a whistleblower’s allegations earlier in the year and had invited Salehpour to testify at a hearing titled “Boeing’s broken safety culture” scheduled for this week.

Blumenthal, along with the committee’s ranking member, Ron Johnson, R-Wisc., sent letters to Boeing and the FAA in March. They reported that they had received claims from a Boeing engineer regarding “potentially catastrophic safety risks” associated with the 787, though they did not specifically name Salehpour.

Introduced in 2011 after several delays, the 787 was the first commercial jet primarily constructed from composite materials, including carbon-fiber reinforced plastic, which are lighter than traditional metals like aluminum.

Photo by gk-6mt | iStock

As of December 2023, 1,113 Boeing 787 aircraft were in service with airlines. This total included 397 of the 787-8 model, 619 of the 787-9, and 97 of the 787-10. The largest operators were All Nippon Airways with 82 aircraft, United Airlines with 71, American Airlines with 59, Qatar Airways with 47, Japan Airlines with 46, Etihad Airways with 40, Hainan Airlines and Air Canada each with 38, British Airways with 37, Ethiopian Airlines with 29, Air India with 27, and various other airlines operating smaller numbers of this type.

Boeing has described Salehpour’s allegations as “inaccurate” and inconsistent with extensive testing that confirmed the 787’s operational safety before requiring “conservative maintenance routines.” The company noted that a single aircraft could remain operational for 40 to 50 years.

Regarding the specific claim about the potential failure of newer materials under the repeated stress of flight, Boeing highlighted an additional advantage of the 787’s composite structure: unlike traditional metals, the material does not fatigue or corrode, which significantly reduces maintenance needs over many decades of service.

Debra S. Katz, the lawyer representing Salehpour, informed The New York Times that her client had expressed safety concerns to the company, which were subsequently disregarded and led to him being marginalized. She mentioned that he was reassigned to work on another model, the 777, where he also identified construction issues.

“Our client identified serious safety concerns and did everything possible to bring those concerns to the attention of Boeing officials. Rather than heeding his warnings, Boeing prioritized getting the planes to market as quickly as possible, despite the known, well-substantiated issues Mr Salehpour raised. The engineering problems identified directly affect the structural integrity of Boeing’s 787 and 777 planes and, unless corrected, will impact the entire aviation industry and all who fly.”

Salehpour’s attorneys, Debra S. Katz

Katz criticized the company culture, stating, “This is a culture that prioritizes the production of planes and pushes them off the line even when there are serious concerns about the structural integrity of those planes and their production process.”

Salehpour also claimed that he faced retaliation from the company when attempting to raise his concerns, which, according to his lawyers, included being “threatened with termination, excluded from important meetings, projects, and communication, denied reasonable requests for medical leave, assigned work outside of his expertise, and effectively declared persona non grata to his colleagues.”

Boeing, in its response, stated:

“We continue to monitor these issues under established regulatory protocols and encourage all employees to speak up when issues arise. Retaliation is strictly prohibited at Boeing.”

The FAA emphasizes the importance of voluntary reporting in ensuring aviation safety, asserting that the ability to report concerns without fear of reprisal is vital. The agency actively encourages all members of the aviation industry to freely share any information that could impact safety. The FAA is committed to conducting thorough investigations of all reports received, demonstrating its dedication to maintaining and enhancing safety standards across the aviation sector.

“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.”

An FAA statement


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