'Fly something else': Former Boeing manager refuses to fly on the 787 Dreamliner

In a recent interview, a former Boeing quality manager cited numerous safety concerns in the 787 Dreamliner.

Boeing 787 Dreamliner
  • John Barnett worked as a quality manager at Boeing for three decades, but recently left the company due, in part, to his concerns over issues in the production of the 787 Dreamliner.
  • In a recent interview with Corporate Crime Reporter, Barnett said he would "change flights before I would fly a 787. I've told my family — please don't fly a 787."
  • The allegations follow up two 737 crashes that occurred earlier in 2019, calling into question the airline company's dedication to safety standards.

The past few years have not been good for Boeing. First, in October of 2018, a 737 Max crashed just after take-off from Jakarta, killing 189 people. Then again, in March, another Max flight crashed after take-off in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, killing 157 people. Ensuing reviews revealed that the Boeing failed to adequately train its pilots on a new system responsible for the crash, refused to install safety systems that could have mitigated the crashes, and even pushed for laws that would cut back on oversight.

Now, a former quality manager for Boeing explained in a recent interview with Corporate Crime Reporter why these issues aren't limited to just the 737, and why he refuses to fly on Boeing's 787 Dreamliner.

Lowered safety standards

John Barnett had been a quality manager for Boeing for three decades, work which he enjoyed until he was transferred to Boeing's plant in Charleston, South Carolina, where the 787 is manufactured. Soon after his arrival in 2010, a new leadership team whose previous experience centered on Boeing's military projects began overseeing work on the commercial airliner at the plant.

"They started pressuring us to not document defects," said Barnett, "to work outside the procedures, to allow defective material to be installed without being corrected. They started bypassing procedures and not maintaining configurement control of airplanes, not maintaining control of non-conforming parts — they just wanted to get the planes pushed out the door and make the cash register ring."

At first, Barnett claims, these lapses started out as administrative issues, such as encouraging workers to improperly fill out paperwork. "Over time it got worse and worse," he said. They began to ignore defective parts installed on the planes and basic issues related to aircraft safety.

For example, one audit uncovered that approximately 25 percent of oxygen masks didn't work. Defective parts became lost in the system, only to be later discovered installed on flying aircraft. Barnett particularly recalls several defective bulkheads being installed without having been repaired.

Another major issue were the metal slivers. When securing the plane's floorboard with titanium fasteners, 3-inch-long slivers of razor-sharp metal would fall down into the compartment where the aircraft's sensitive electronic equipment lies.

"That surface below the floor board is where all of your flight control wires are, that's where all of your electronic equipment is," said Barnett. "It controls systems on the airplane, it controls the power of the airplane. All of your electronic equipment is down where all of these metal slivers are falling." Even at the Charleston plant, Barnett described how these slivers would cause electrical shorts and start fires. As the planes vibrate, these metal slivers eventually work their way into the wire bundles and connectors with the potential to cause these issues during flight.

I want the people to know what they are riding on.

Barnett filed complaints with multiple members of the Boeing team, which he asserts resulted in his reassignment to a stand-alone department that isolated him from other quality managers. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) did come in and do an audit, substantiating Barnett's claims. As a result of this, the FAA told Boeing that no more planes could be delivered that contained those metal slivers. However, Boeing had determined that the metal slivers were not a safety issue on the planes they had already delivered, and so the customers did not need to be informed. "And at the time," said Barnett, "I think we were up around 800 airplanes that had been delivered. Every 787 out there has these slivers out there."

Without seeing significant improvements, Barnett filed a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in January 2017. As of this writing, OSHA is still investigating and has not made any determinations.

Barnett stressed that he was a fan of Boeing's planes overall, asserting that the previous planes he worked on were built to be safe and airworthy. "But as far as the 787, I would change flights before I would fly a 787. I've told my family — please don't fly a 787. Fly something else. Try to get a different ticket. I want the people to know what they are riding on."

Lowering the regulatory bar

Wreckage from the March 2019 crash of a 737 Max airliner outside of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Xinhua/ via Getty Images

These allegations add on to previous criticisms that the airline company is putting profit ahead of safety as a means of staying ahead of its major competitor, Airbus. Together, they effectively form a duopoly in the airline industry, and staying ahead of its competitor in the already challenging industry has pushed Boeing to cut corners. Critics assert that the company intentionally skipped training pilots in new systems and procedures, a decision which may have led to the two 737 crashes earlier in 2019 and 2018.

Compounding these issues, the company has successfully lobbied for reduced oversight as well. The most recent manifestation of this was Boeing's lobbying efforts toward the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018, a bill that the FAA claimed would "not be in the best interest of safety." A former FAA attorney claimed that "it set the FAA up for being totally deferential to the industry." Coupled with Barnett's claims that the company has been ignoring quality concerns in the 787 Dreamliner and the 737's recent crashes, this hamstrung regulatory environment does not inspire confidence.

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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