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Following another incident involving a Boeing 737 MAX aircraft, a known Boeing whistleblower is sounding the alarm over the multinational corporation’s requests for “safety exemptions.”
The Associated Press reported that “a fuselage panel blew out on an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 Max 9 seven minutes after takeoff from Portland, Oregon.”
“The rapid loss of cabin pressure pulled the clothes off a child and caused oxygen masks to drop from the ceiling, but miraculously none of the 171 passengers and six members were injured. Pilots made a safe emergency landing,” AP added.
A “missing door plug” presumably from the aircraft was found in the backyard of a home in Portland, and NBC News reported on January 8 that United Airlines had found multiple “installation issues” with door plugs in their Boeing 737 MAX 9 planes, including bolts that need tightening.
Ed Pierson, a former Boeing senior manager and the executive director of the Foundation for Aviation Safety, appeared on “Democracy Now!” to discuss the incident. He said, “There’s lots of requests for engineering exemptions, which is really shocking when you think that, after all that, why are we having the Boeing Company right now ask for delays for engineering exemptions?”
The corporation has made at least three or four requests for “exemptions from legally required engineering design standards,” according to Pierson. This involves “flight control-related systems—stall management, yaw damper computer, the flap slats, electronic actuator unit, you know, and, just recently, the engine inlet icing.”
“I mean, these are important systems. And why are we, after all this, you know, trying to give them special treatment?”
Boeing’s latest effort to seek an exemption was covered by Seattle Times aerospace reporter Dominic Gates the same day that the Alaska Airlines incident occurred. (Boeing was founded in Seattle, Washington.)
“Days before the holiday break, Boeing petitioned the Federal Aviation Administration [FAA] for an exemption from key safety standards for the 737 MAX 7—the still-uncertified smallest member of its newest jet family,” Gates reported.
“Since August, earlier models of the MAX currently flying passengers in the U.S. have had to limit use of the jet's engine anti-ice system after Boeing discovered a defect in the system with potentially catastrophic consequences.”
“The flaw could cause the inlet at the front end of the pod surrounding the engine—known as a nacelle—to break and fall off,” according to Gates. And even the FAA recognizes the seriousness of this defect. Officials acknowledged that “such a breakup could penetrate the fuselage, putting passengers seated at windows behind the wings in danger and could damage the wing or tail of the plane.”
Pierson’s foundation submitted a filing with the FAA that cautioned the agency against consideration of Boeing’s exemption proposal. “A simple mistake by the flight crew” could easily result in catastrophe, the filing warned.
The incident with a Boeing 737 MAX aircraft is the third major incident in six years. Lion Air Flight 610, a Boeing 737 MAX 8, crashed on October 29, 2018. The crash occurred minutes after takeoff from Jakarta, Indonesia, and killed all 189 people on board.
On March 10, 2019, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, a 737 MAX 8, crashed minutes after take off from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. All 157 people on board were killed.
The FAA waited three days, even as some FAA engineers urged officials to ground all Boeing 737 MAX aircraft. Finally, on March 13, the Boeing 737 MAX was grounded until November 2020 “after Boeing made a series of software upgrades and training changes,” according to Reuters.
Despite overwhelming evidence that Boeing continues to flout safety regulations and endanger the lives of passengers and flight crew, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has largely ignored complaints and warnings from whistleblowers like Pierson.
When U.S. senators and representatives in Congress investigated Boeing in 2021, Pierson shared his knowledge and insights [PDF] with the chair of the House Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.
“Boeing, the airlines, and the FAA continue to downplay and characterize safety incidents involving the 737 MAX and an ever-growing number of newly discovered production quality defects involving Boeing airplanes as routine, and thus inevitable.” They claimed the issues were not related to software in the plane’s flight system or “the accidents,” which Pierson called “an irresponsible, dishonest, and dangerous strategy.”
Pierson asserted that the “fixes” adopted by the FAA after the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines crashes had not addressed the defects, which resulted in the crashes. Yet the FAA still re-certified the Boeing 737 MAX.
“We’ve seen, ever since the MAX has been put back in service, over 20 serious production quality defects that have surfaced,” Pierson stated on “Democracy Now!” “And we’re not talking tray tables. We’re talking about flight-related systems.”
Pierson maintained that “the public is unaware of this. These are reports that go through in the FAA database, and it’s not something that the airlines want to talk about. It’s certainly not something Boeing or the FAA want to talk about.”
The reporting from the Seattle Times on Boeing’s request for “exemptions” indicated that Boeing specifically asked for an exemption from having to prove that failures, malfunctions, or possible combinations of failures that could jeopardize plane safety are “extremely remote”—when they make such a claim to the FAA.
Furthermore, Gates recalls some forgotten or under-reported history. “In 2018, a passenger aboard a Southwest Airlines 737 died when a broken fan blade destroyed an engine cowl. Shrapnel penetrated the aircraft's fuselage and broke a cabin window beside the passenger.”
While an incident occurred in 2016, nobody died so Boeing did nothing to fix the defect in the 737 aircraft. The FAA has authorized Boeing to wait until the middle of 2028 to retrofit their aircraft and fix the problem.
Congress granted the Boeing 737 MAX 7 and MAX 10 a safety exemption in 2022 after the corporation’s CEO Dave Calhoun threatened to cancel the MAX. Calhoun demanded that the jet be certified “without meeting the safety regulation for crew alerting systems” in the 2020 Aircraft Certification, Safety, and Accountability Act.”
The 2020 aircraft safety reform bill was passed in the aftermath of the Boeing crashes. During the 2022 cycle, Boeing spent over $10 million lobbying Congress and an affiliated political action committee donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the campaign committees for both Democrats and Republicans. That made Congress’ enforcement of their own reform magically disappear from their list of priorities.
Finally, Pierson claimed that Boeing has “removed production quality inspections.” This has apparently been done without informing the FAA, and it not only involves the 737 MAX aircraft but other Boeing aircraft as well.
“It’s astonishing if you think about it. There’s been removal of the quality control inspections. There was some internal whistleblowers that reported this. And the FAA substantiated it,” Pierson said.