One Boeing whistleblower claimed passengers could be left on a 787 Dreamliner without oxygen if the cabin was suffering from sudden pressure relief.
Tests suggest that up to a quarter of oxygen systems may be defective and may not work when needed, says John Barnett.
He also claimed that the defective parts were deliberately installed for the aircraft on the production line at a Boeing plant.
Boeing denies the charges and says all its planes are built to the highest standards of safety and quality.
The company came under close scrutiny following two disastrous incidents, one of its other aircraft, the 737 MAX.
Mr. Barnett, a former quality control engineer, worked for Boeing for 32 years, until he retired for health reasons in March 2017.
Since 2010, he has served as Quality Manager at Boeing’s factory in North Charleston, South Carolina.
This plant is one of two involved in the construction of the 787 Dreamliner, a modern state-of-the-art aircraft widely used in long-distance routes around the world. Despite early teething problems after it entered service, the aircraft proved successful with airlines, and a useful source of profits for the company.
But according to Barnett, 57, the rush to get a new plane out of the production line means the assembly has been pushed and safety has been jeopardized. The company denies this and insists that “safety, quality and integrity are at the core of Boeing’s values.”
In 2016, he told the BBC, he discovered problems with emergency oxygen systems. These are supposed to keep passengers and crew alive if cabin pressure fails for any reason at altitude. Breathing masks are intended to fall from the ceiling, which supplies oxygen from a gas cylinder.
Without these systems, passengers will be helpless quickly. At 35,000 feet, (10,600 meters) they will be unconscious in less than a minute. At 40,000 feet, it can happen within 20 seconds. Brain damage and even death can follow.
Although sudden stress events are rare, they do occur. In April 2018, for example, a window from a Southwest Airlines plane exploded after it was hit by debris from a damaged engine. One passenger sitting next to the window suffered serious injuries and later died as a result – but the others were able to rely on emergency oxygen supplies and survived unharmed.
Barnett says that when he was working to turn off systems that suffered minor cosmetic damage, he found that some oxygen bottles were not emptied when they were meant to do so. He then arranged a controlled test by Boeing’s R&D unit.
This test, which used oxygen systems that were “out of stock” and undamaged, was designed to mimic the way it would be deployed on a plane, using exactly the same voltage as the trigger. He says 300 systems have been tested – 75 of them have not been deployed correctly, with a failure rate of 25%.
Barnett says his attempts to take a look at the issue have been pushed back by Boeing executives. In 2017, the US regulator, FAA, complained that no action was taken to address the problem. However, the FAA said it could not substantiate this claim, because Boeing indicated that it was working on the case at the time.
Boeing itself rejects Barnett’s assertions.
He admits that in 2017 “he identified some of the oxygen bottles received from the supplier that were not properly deployed. We removed those bottles from production so that no defective bottles were placed on the planes, and we took up with our suppliers.”
But it also states that “every passenger oxygen system installed on our aircraft is tested several times before delivery to ensure that it is working properly and must pass these tests to stay on board.”
“The system is also tested at regular intervals once the aircraft enters the service,” she says.
This is not the only claim made to Boeing regarding the South Carolina plant. Mr Barnett also says that Boeing has failed to follow its own procedures, which aim to track parts during assembly, allowing a number of damaged items to be “lost”.
He claims that workers with even less stress even installed substandard parts from scrap bins to planes on the production line, in at least one case with the knowledge of a senior manager. He says this was done to save time, because “Boeing South Carolina is strictly driven by schedule and cost.”
Regarding the missing parts, a review conducted by the Federal Aviation Administration in early 2017 confirmed Mr. Barnett’s concerns, confirming that the location of at least 53 “non-conforming” parts was unknown and that they were considered missing. Boeing has ordered remedial action.
Since then, the company says, it has “fully resolved the results of the Federal Aviation Administration with regard to tracking parts, and implemented corrective measures to prevent their recurrence.” There was no further comment on the possibility of incompatible parts making it complete for the aircraft – although insiders at the North Charleston plant insist it cannot happen.
Mr. Barnett is currently taking legal action against Boeing, which he accuses of harming his personality and obstructing his career because of the cases he referred to, eventually leading to his retirement. The company’s response is that he had long-term plans to retire, and did so voluntarily. “Boeing has in no way compromised Barnett’s ability to pursue any career he chooses.”
The company says it offers its employees a number of channels to raise concerns and complaints, and has strict processes to protect them and ensure that the problems they draw attention to are taken into account. “We encourage our employees and expect them to raise concerns, and when they do, we investigate them and solve them completely,” she says.
But Barnett is not the only Boeing employee to have raised concerns about Boeing’s manufacturing operations. Earlier this year, for example, it turned out that following the failure of Ethiopian Airlines 737 Max in March, four current or former employees called a Federal Aviation Administration hotline to report potential problems.
Mr Barnett believes that the concerns he highlighted reflect the corporate culture that “everything is about speed, cost reduction, and the number of beans (jobs sold)”. He claims that managers “don’t care about safety, they just meet the schedule.”
This is a view supported by another former engineer, Adam Dickson, who co-developed the 737 Max at the Boeing Renton plant in Washington state.
“There was a campaign to keep the planes moving through the plant. There was often pressure to keep production levels high,he told the BBC
“. Our senior managers had no help. ”
At congressional hearings in October, Democratic congressman Albio Ceres was quoted from an e-mail sent by a senior manager on the 737 production line.
In it, the manager complained that workers were” exhausted “by the need To work at a very high pace for a long time
, he said that the pressure of the schedule “creates a culture where employees are either deliberate or unaware to circumvent fixed processes,” which adversely affects quality.