For Whom The Whistle Blows

A mid-cabin door plug blew out of an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737-9 on January 5 because it was removed at Boeing, to rectify faulty work by fuselage supplier Spirit, and improperly reinstalled. The bolts that hold the plug in position against its stops – as the latch mechanism would do, if it was a normal door – did not break and were not loose. They were never re-installed. It was blind luck that no passenger was ejected from the airplane, and that the exit didn’t strike the tail.

Various sources confirmed the story to the media, but it surfaced because a whistleblower posted a detailed account in the comment section of Leeham News, an online-only airline newsletter. Identified only as “throwawayboeingN704AL”, the source opened with a simple disclaimer, below:

The post was followed by a stream of reporters seeking to contact Throwaway, interspersed with people claiming knowledge of Boeing and warning the whistleblower to take precautions against discovery by corporate security, noting in particular that if they’d used their personal device to access any company functions (such as benefits), that might be a source of compromise. One mentioned knowing how a source named Kodiak, who had been in contact with The Seattle Times‘ Dominic Gates, had been busted.

Follow-up stories focused on the Alaska incident, rather than Throwaway’s description of the 737 line as “a rambling, shambling disaster waiting to happen”, where inspectors have “in the past 365 calendar days, recorded 392 nonconforming findings on 737 mid-fuselage door installations”. Reading the posts, Throwaway’s motive doesn’t seem to be just wanting to scoop the news – the writer sees serious continuing risk and has put their career on the line.

Faulty doors popping open bring back not-good memories. American Flight 96 was the DC-10-10 that lost its bulk cargo door on June 12, 1972. over Windsor, Ontario, after departing Detroit. The crew made a successful but hairy emergency landing after losing control of the #2 engine and parts of the flight control system, after the escaping air damaged the floor at the rear of the cabin. One body was found on the ground, but the person was dead before they boarded the flight, in a casket being shipped for interment. Absent fatalities and assured by McDonnell Douglas that the problem – a weak and fault-prone latch – would be fixed, the FAA did not issue an Airworthiness Directive.

But not all the airplanes already built received the post-Windsor mods to the door. A few aircraft that had been built for a cancelled All Nippon order, in storage and without customers at the time, were missed. THY Turkish Airlines leased three of them, and on March 3, 1974, one of them was operating TK981 from Orly to Heathrow. The flight was usually largely empty, but on that day it was packed with passengers displaced by a British European Airways strike. The same cargo door blew out for the same reason, but this time the crumpling floor inflicted catastrophic damage on the controls. The DC-10 crashed into a forest at high speed with the loss of 346 lives.

Now look at Throwaway’s post again. It describes a production system that carries a lot of faults forward. Spirit – spun off from Boeing to build the fuselage and other structures, with the sole aim of cutting cost – has been consistently squeezed for prices and terms favorable to Boeing. It has to get fuselage sections on to railroad cars on time. Its people are under pressure to do that, and to reduce reported defects. So, reports Throwaway, the body sections ship with defects and there are more Spirit people on the Renton line, fixing known problems and things that Boeing has found. This doesn’t sound like a system that’s going to end up with zero quality escapes.

Emirates president Sir Tim Clark took to the pages of the Financial Times to warn Boeing that it was in the “Last Chance Saloon” as concerns about quality and engineering translate into late deliveries and sliding certification dates for the company’s new aircraft. But what can the airlines do? The more they put pressure on Boeing, the more Boeing will press its subcontractors. Clark wants to put his own inspectors on the line, which seems to be all stocked up on inspectors already. The airline industry’s growth plans depend on Boeing’s capacity. The customers can ask for heads to roll, but that happened with the MCAS accidents – and here we are again. (By the way, Dennis Muilenburg walked away with $62 million, which I would estimate as about $62 million more than Throwaway will get if the company figures out their identity.)

Reaction to the Alaska incident has been influenced by the previous 737 MAX crashes – like Windsor and TK981, back-to-back accidents from the same cause. To some extent that’s different from a door plug, but MCAS – like the MAX itself – was a cost-avoidance device, a simple, cheap and pilot-transparent fix to an aerodynamic problem; and outsourcing is equally economics-driven. Boeing and the airline industry have a massive interest in people not thinking that the MAX is less safe than its rival and that the difference is a matter of dollars.

Another TK981 is unthinkable. But it’s also possible.

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