Air Farce One?

Whistleblowers claim Boeing built unsafe planes on a ramped-up assembly line marked by sabotage.

Propelled by a new court ruling, two whistleblowers are pursing claims that Boeing sacrificed safety and manufacturing quality for speedier production lines. Their stunning and separate allegations of sabotage by Boeing workers, unsafe presidential jets, and a fleet of passenger planes that could come apart in the sky are unfolding in US District Court in Seattle.

Former Boeing Auburn line inspector George D. Wynalda Jr. of Puyallup says the flawed practices continued as late as 1996, as Boeing struggled with ramped-up production and a profit-killing backlog of jet orders. Ex-flight-control rigger Timothy Kerr of California says he witnessed workers misinstalling cables, overtightening bolts, and drilling wrong holes on the backed-up Boeing Everett assembly lines of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Boeing supervisors, the two say, approved substandard parts and corner-cutting on some planes and failed to order corrections when defects were brought to their attention. Boeing workers were intimidated and harassed "so as not to delay the production process," according to their lawsuits.

The allegations, made in separate suits filed on behalf of the government and taxpayers under the False Claims Act, seek at least $10 billion from Boeing. The claims have not been publicly reported since the cases were quietly unsealed in court last year.

Among the aircraft affected by the alleged inferior production, the two former Boeing employees say, are such military jets as Airborne Warning and Control System (AWAC) planes made for the Navy, Air Force, and Japan, and two versions of Air Force One. Kerr says two copies of the presidential jets may contain assembly-line flaws since they were produced under the same substandard process.

Dozens of passenger planes used today by major airlines were also affected, the whistleblowers say. More than $200 million worth of jetliners from 727s to 767s are allegedly substandard products—some dangerously so. According to court documents, an unspecified number of Boeing jets assembled during the past 15 years are flying with faulty fuselage "joins"—where sections are fitted together—that "could ultimately result in the disintegration of the aircraft in flight."

Boeing calls the claims absolutely false, arguing that the planes in question were ultimately approved by federal authorities. Boeing adds there's no direct proof that any of the craft have had flight problems due to the alleged practices. But in the past, Boeing has admitted to some of the accusations raised anew by the whistleblowers. In 1993, for example, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said Boeing had improperly installed engine struts on more than 700 jetliners for more than 18 years, forcing the company to recheck bolts that had been overtorqued as much as 150 percent. The company also allowed that its production methods were sometimes "inefficient and error-prone."

Kerr claims he saw evidence of sabotage in the late 1980s by unidentified Boeing union workers in Everett. According to a transcript of a discussion between Kerr and his attorney filed with the court, Kerr recalled finding a tool called a bucking bar that had been stuck into the left horizontal stabilizer of a Boeing 767 being produced for American Airlines in 1987.

As the plane moved along the assembly process, the bar "had vibrated so severely up and down that it poked 50 [to] 60 some holes each in the upper and lower surface of the horizontal stabilizers," Kerr says. "And this was a case of sabotage because [a] second American Airlines plane coming through had the very same style bucking bar left in it . . . this was a case of someone who hadn't liked American Airlines [and] had purposely sabotaged two sets of horizontal stabilizers. I think they cost like $15 million or so to replace each set."

Kerr also alleges that two China Airlines planes were sabotaged by electrical workers who held grudges against the Communist government in China. Tail wires on two China Airlines jets were snipped in a way that would have ultimately caused the big jets to stall and crash, but the cut wires were found and replaced before the planes left the factory, he says. Additionally, back then, "a lot of Japan-bashing" went on at Boeing, Kerr says. "And for whatever reason, no other airline receives the amount of damage, significant damage, to their airplanes . . . than the Japanese airplanes do."

Last month, US District Court Judge Barbara Rothstein rebuffed Boeing's bid to dismiss Kerr's $10 billion lawsuit, giving impetus as well to Wynalda's companion suit. Wynalda, who has not specified a damage amount, says FAA inspectors have upheld some of his complaints in the past and that several other US agencies including the FBI have reviewed or are looking into his claims.

Having failed to dismiss Kerr, Boeing is still attempting to dismiss Wynalda's suit, says Kerr attorney Jim Hailey of Seattle.

The lawsuits were filed, by law, under seal—Kerr's in Los Angeles on March 14, 1996 (then transferred here last December), and Wynalda's in Seattle on September 9, 1997. Neither whistleblower originally knew of the other's strikingly similar lawsuit but both allege that, by claiming military versions of the planes were properly built, Boeing fraudulently billed the government for their costs.

Under the False Claims Act, the US can intervene at any time to defend government and taxpayer interests, giving whistleblowers a portion of any judgment or settlement (if whistleblowers go it alone without the US as their litigation partner, they get to keep all the money). US District Attorney in Seattle, Kate Pflaumer, continues to monitor the Kerr and Wynalda cases, still in the early stages of discovery.

Boeing workers have previously told Seattle Weekly of design and production flaws in older Boeing planes—known as "Boeing blems"—but said they had no serious questions about the crafts' airworthiness. Though Boeing last week chose not to comment directly on the new whistleblower claims, former Boeing president Ron Woodard told us last year, "It is 100 percent certain that we would not, nor would the FAA, ever allow an airplane that is anything but absolutely safe leave our factory."

Kerr has kept a record of production problems he says he witnessed, including a series of memos to himself (such as a March 10, 1993, note on a jet that "has wrong seal at join, but engineering is going to let it go," court files show). Wynalda has letters and inspection tags he says support his claims and both have lists of other workers who they say will back their accusations.

An assembly line worker at Boeing Renton in the 1970s, Kerr served as a mechanic and flight-control rigger in Everett from 1986 until he quit in 1993, having been "threatened with bodily harm" for attempting to correct defects, he claims. Wynalda, a Boeing employee for 18 years with a record of numerous commendations, claims he was fired four years ago at the Auburn plant in retaliation for reporting alleged violations to federal inspectors.

They claim it was Boeing's policy to give airplane mechanics stamps to approve inspections on their own projects, eliminating formally trained inspectors from the approval process. The two ex-workers also say they witnessed Boeing officials "falsely certify that parts and/or assembly met specifications . . . without even conducting an inspection, [leading to] defective and substandard parts which are in airplanes flying today."

Kerr says he saw or was made aware of "hundreds of occasions at various stages of the assembly process where a significant aircraft primary structural defect or failure existed or . . . was discovered and knowingly overlooked."

Wynalda says he "personally discovered corroded or otherwise substandard parts, and [that] his supervisors either overrode his decisions to reject those parts or harassed him into approving the parts."

Among the examples provided by Wynalda in his complaint is what he calls a chronic defect problem with the skins, the outer metal layers of Boeing 700 series jets. "From 1990 through 1995, the metal Boeing received from its suppliers to build the skins suffered from a dangerous and uncorrectable form of internal corrosion," Wynalda says.

"Rather than returning this defective metal to suppliers and throwing off Boeing's production schedule, Boeing management ordered inspectors to falsely label the condition and use low-level inspection forms that did not require them to pull the materials from the manufacturing process."

Neither whistleblower claims that similar practices continue today. Boeing, which turned a $178 million bottom-line loss in 1997 into a $1.1 billion profit in 1998, says it has mastered its production troubles.

 
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