$10 Billion Suit Claims Boeing Produced 'Defective' Aircraft

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The late 1980s were flush years for the Boeing Company. Airlines were hungry for the company's renowned products. So hungry, in fact, that Boeing had to add thousands of new workers and ramp up production to push enough new airplanes out of its factories.

But now a former Boeing worker says that this buildup came with a high price. The world's largest aircraft manufacturer has knowingly cranked out flawed airplanes to meet "sacred" production schedules, charges former Boeing employee Timothy Kerr in a whistleblower lawsuit.

He says company inspectors downplayed faults such as misinstalled cables, badly drilled holes, and overtightened bolts - all to keep planes rolling out the door. Among other things, the complaint alleges that Boeing:

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

* Sacrificed quality control to maintain its ramped-up production schedule.

* Encouraged inspectors and engineers to falsely certify parts and workmanship as airworthy.

* Knew that workers on the plant floor sabotaged - or at least tried to sabotage - planes.

His bottom line: These and other defects may endanger the lives of thousands of today's air travelers, including members of the US military.

"Kerr personally experienced and/or observed and/or was made aware of hundreds of occasions ... where a significant aircraft primary structural defect or failure existed ... and [was] knowingly overlooked by Boeing inspectors...," states his complaint.

Mr. Kerr's charges are laid out in sealed court documents filed 19 months ago in federal court in California. Kerr, who helped build 767s at Boeing from 1986 to 1993, has sued the company for $10 billion on behalf of the US government, which must decide whether to join the suit (see Informers Act, Page 11).

His general assertions cover a range of Boeing models, including 747s, 757s, 767s, military AWACS, and even Air Force One.

But it's the specifics that may constitute the core of Kerr's case. His many note-card references to the problems he saw or heard about on individual aircraft, filed with his complaint, provide narrow, checkable allegations whose truth - or falsity - could well determine the future of the suit.

Kerr and his lawyer, as well as government agencies assigned to investigate the charges, are not permitted to discuss the case because it is under seal. Boeing, too, has declined to comment on the substance of the allegations. Nor will it reveal what its internal records - a database of all customer-reported problems - show about any of the aircraft.

The Monitor's own effort to track the safety records of 47 of the dozens of 767s named in the court documents yielded mixed results: None has been involved in a crash, but some have experienced problems - such as emergency landings stemming from mechanical difficulties.

Indeed, a comparison of the court documents with US incident reports shows a few of these planes may have had problems with parts that Kerr alleges were defective or improperly installed.

Without a firsthand examination of these aircraft, experts say, it's difficult to determine the seriousness of the allegations.

"[Problems cited in the documents] are not things you normally see go out," says Amedeo Misci, a Massachusetts-based airplane engineer and mechanic who has worked in the field for 30 years. "Some are not of major consequence; some could cause very serious problems."

For its part, Boeing sticks by the quality of its aircraft. "We are proud of our commitment to building high-quality, reliable, safe airplanes," the company said in a written statement.

It is unclear how aggressively the government is investigating Kerr's charges - or how close it is to making a decision about whether to join the suit.

Most of the Kerr complaint concerns commercial aircraft, which - if they're owned by domestic carriers - fall under the regulatory purview of the Federal Aviation Administration. But an FAA spokeswoman says the agency isn't involved in the case.

Because the charges also concern a handful of military planes, the Pentagon is investigating. The US Attorney's Office in Seattle acknowledged it has the case but says it cannot divulge any information.

"As long as it is under seal, I cannot talk about it. I can't tell you about the status of the investigation," says Brian Kipness, chief of the civil division of the US Attorney's Office in Seattle.

The case surfaces at a sensitive time for Boeing. The firm is again ramping up production - and wrestling with quality control. In a precautionary move, the FAA recently added four more inspectors to monitor Boeing's commercial-jet.

Roller-coaster industry

The aircraft manufacturing business is, in fact, notorious for ups and downs. Orders flood in when airlines are profitable, and firms hire masses of new engineers, riveters, and inspectors to produce some of the most complicated products on earth. When orders drop off, many of these same workers lose their jobs.

Back in 1986, when Timothy Kerr started working at Boeing's cavernous Everett factory 30 miles north of Seattle, the company was on the cusp of just such an upswing. It had won orders for hundreds of new 747s. Moreover, it was beginning to assemble sections of the B-2 bomber.

To meet its ramped-up schedule, Boeing added almost 18,000 new production workers at its three plants between 1985 and 1990, according to the International Association of Machinists & Aerospace Workers. The additions nearly doubled the assembly-line work force.

Many of the novice employees filled positions on the 747 and 767 commercial-jet lines, Kerr's documents state. More-experienced workers were moved to the B-2, which was a more difficult plane to produce, they say.

Controlling quality during such a period would challenge the most fastidious manufacturer - and it challenged Boeing. Reports of the firm's problems were widespread at the time.

A 1988 Los Angeles Times article, for example, noted that Boeing "has encountered embarrassing quality problems - largely the consequence, managers say, of suppliers being unable to deal with the enormous pickup in demand for Boeing planes and the company's own hiring of inexperienced workers."

Furthermore, the firm received letters of complaint from two important customers. In February 1988, a British Airways inspector fired off a letter to Boeing about missing fasteners, badly fitted rivets, and hairline cracks. Production workers "seem oblivious that

they are building aircraft where any mistake not properly corrected or hidden represents a direct compromise with safety," read the letter that was published at the time. It adds that some mistakes found on a new 747 left "no doubt that the integrity of the aircraft structure had been compromised."

A month later, the president of Japan Airlines wrote a similar complaint to Boeing. An engine-overheating indicator was incorrectly installed on a new 747, he said, and fire-extinguishing systems had been improperly fitted in the cargo holds of 767s. "Fortunately, these errors were either corrected without incident or resulted only in minor incidents," the letter said. "Nevertheless, there was the possibility of a serious incident developing and we feel that these production errors, small though they may seem, should never have been overlooked."

Because of such complaints, the FAA in 1989 required all US airlines to check the engine and cargo fire-protection systems of most Boeing planes. The action - called an "airworthiness directive" - was prompted by numerous reports of improperly installed wiring and plumbing in these systems.

A rigger's revolt

It was during this ramp-up that a Boeing rigger named Timothy Kerr was becoming disenchanted with his employment.

Sealed court documents obtained by the Monitor provide a bare outline of Kerr's life. He holds an airframe and powerplant mechanic's license issued by the FAA. He has more than 20 years' experience working on aircraft, from the rainy climes of Seattle to the desert flight lines of the Middle East.

Pentagon records show he's a military man who served in Vietnam as a helicopter door gunner, flying some 800 missions. He won the Vietnam Service Medal and the Army Commendation Medal, among other awards. At Boeing, he was a rigger, someone who installs the cables that operate systems such as rudders, flaps, and throttles. By all accounts, Kerr was a stickler for precision.

"Never saw a harder worker," says the Rev. Mike Tarsi of the Set Free Christian Fellowship Church in Stanwood, Wash. A Boeing electrician, he says he was fired in 1989 for taking unauthorized time off. "Anything less than perfect was not acceptable. Tim would write rejection tags on everything."

Kerr first worked for Boeing in the 1970s. For three years he punched in at the company's plant in Renton, Wash., helping produce 737 and 727 aircraft. Then, in 1986, he took a job at Boeing's Everett factory to begin what would turn out to be a seven-year stint working on 767 models.

According to court documents, his concerns about the plane's construction quality began after only a few days at Everett, when he saw another mechanic drop a tool. "It fell from only about seven feet, it struck a [plane] rib, and it cracked it out. A rib is kind of a major structure," Kerr says in the deposition attached to his complaint, referring to the weakness of the rib structure.

Kerr says that as the months went by he became increasingly concerned about problems ranging from bad parts to intentional sabotage. Time and again, he went to his superiors - "to no avail," the complaint states.

It was a time when everyone on the Boeing floor was feeling the crush of the production schedule. The company was requiring them to work 12-hour days, seven days a week, union officials say. Every fifth week they received a weekend off.

Months of mandatory overtime took their toll, and in October 1989, Boeing workers went on strike. It was about this time, too, that Kerr began to do something different in his work: Along with complaining to his bosses, he apparently started taking notes.

Over the next four years Kerr produced dozens of handwritten cards that document alleged problems with planes that he either saw or was told about. Filed in federal court, the cards deal largely with 767 models that Kerr worked on. But they also refer to 747s and other aircraft, and major parts from suppliers. Writing about a jet now flown by Japan's All Nippon Airlines, for example, he notes about a key rudder-control device: "shoddy, poor casting, gouges, nicks."

Boeing officials continued to fail to act on problems he identified, according to Kerr. He asserts in his complaint that, as time went by, he was harassed regularly by co-workers because he was taking notes about shoddy workmanship.

In 1993 Kerr resigned. He alleges in court documents that Boeing pushed him into quitting by either encouraging or condoning the sabotage of his work by others on the line and "threatening [him] with great bodily harm," among other things.

Heat on the line

The general picture that Kerr's lawsuit alleges is of a mammoth Everett factory - big enough to shelter Disneyland under its roof - where the top priority was turning things out on time, not doing quality work.

Some other Boeing workers who were there at the time say that's the way they remember things, too.

"Production at all costs was the attitude," says former co-worker Mike Tarsi, who says he saw a supervisor tear up a one- to two-inch-thick packet of rejection tags that inspectors had written up. The supervisor was later fired, but it's not known if the problems were ever fixed, he adds.

Another employee, who still works at Boeing, concurs. "If you had a problem, [supervisors] would tell you just hog the hole [fill it with a bigger pin]," says a mechanic who formerly worked on the final body join for 767s. "Do whatever it took to sell the job. Cover it up with paint, cover it with seal."

While these workers' comments support Kerr's general assertions, most of the men say they did not believe the mistakes would affect a plane's airworthiness. Most, too, feel loyal to Boeing.

"Boeing is not a bozo company, but there are bozos who work at Boeing," Tarsi says.

Indeed, the workers said they didn't need to be too concerned about mistakes because they were told by supervisors that the planes are overdesigned and overbuilt.

"There's almost nothing mechanics can do that engineers don't overdesign for," says an employee who used to join the wing to the body of 767s. "I was told that."

Boeing does, in fact, build in backup systems for just about every kind of problem that might occur. Engineers currently design a fail-safe system for anything that has a 1 in 1 billion chance of failing, says Partha Mukhopadhyay, a top 767 project engineer.

Kerr's black list

The Monitor has located 47 of the aircraft mentioned in court documents. Twenty-nine are operated by foreign airlines. For the 18 planes flown by US carriers, the Monitor examined 150 documents called Service Difficulty Reports on file with the federal government. Airlines are supposed to file these reports with the FAA when a situation occurs that threatens flight safety.

Consider the case of a plane now flown by United Airlines, registered as N642UA. As it went down the Boeing line, Kerr alleges, a worker installed an aileron cable with broken strands and persuaded a plant inspector to sign off on the job.

Ailerons are crucial aircraft-control surfaces. Long slats on the trailing edges of wings, they're used by pilots during flight to help steer the plane. Since then, United has filed Service Difficulty Reports on the plane, noting in one that it experienced an "aileron lockout" in flight on Dec. 15, 1995.

Airplane engineer Misci says he doesn't think the problem alleged by Kerr would have caused this aileron problem, but it's possible. A lockout, he says, indicates the pilot can't move the ailerons. But if the cable broke, the pilot could still move the controls; the aileron just wouldn't respond.

United also filed a report about aileron cables for another plane - one that went through the production line ahead of N642UA. This report, filed in January 1996 on N641UA, noted "excessive wear and broken strands" in two aileron cables, found during a United inspection.

Since then, the FAA ordered airlines to check for this problem on all 767s flying in the US. It issued an airworthiness directive - a document that outlines a problem and requires compliance from carriers - in July 1996 calling for inspection of 767s for chafing damage to aileron cables. The basic problem, according to the FAA order, is that some 767s may have been built with aileron control cables too close to other wires.

Kerr's deposition contains a comment that may be relevant in this regard. In a note dealing with another 767 owned by United and registered as N660UA, he alleges that the plane's aileron cables were installed improperly. Then he further claims that at one crucial point "the cables ride too close to the sides of the holes on every aircraft."

United refused to comment on this problem, or on additional problems Kerr cited on six other United jets. "All our airplanes are airworthy or they wouldn't be flying," says United spokesman Joe Hopkins. "Anything that we discovered on a new airplane, we would certainly bring that to the attention of the manufacturer."

Delta Airlines has filed several Service Difficulty Reports on a plane mentioned in the Kerr documents. On plane N183DN, the documents allege, certain cables in the right-hand side of a wheel well were "not hooked up" and it "looks like massive structural rework had been done. Looks gross."

Kerr also notes that a key component that locks in the main landing gear has been "preloaded on last 10 aircraft." Excessive preloading, experts say, can lead to too much tension on a part. Kerr alleges the "structure has been cracking out in flight."

"Incorrect preloading could result in wear or cracking of the part," says John Hansman, an aeronautical engineer at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Reports Delta has filed on this plane include the following:

* On Sept. 13, 1993, a hydraulic tube in the right wheel well failed, forcing the plane to make an unscheduled landing.

* On June 9, 1995, the 767 made another unscheduled landing because of a hydraulic line leak in the right wheel well.

* On Nov. 1, 1995, an aileron lockout forced another unscheduled landing.

Engineer Misci says the three reports may not be related to the actual rework. But, he says, Kerr's note indicates some sort of major damage was done in the wheel well and patched over. Some of these other problems could be linked, he says, but he would have to see the wheel well to know.

Delta has refused to comment on these Service Difficulty Reports or on any of Kerr's claims about three 767s it operates. Delta spokeswoman Peggy Estes says an engineering expert went over the problems Kerr outlined with a "fine-toothed comb." But because of legal ramifications that will affect Delta in a "roundabout way," she says, Delta will not comment on the allegations.

Nuts and bolts

Earlier this year, in March, a Delta 767 was landing at Dallas-Ft. Worth International when something bizarre happened: A 21-foot section of a wing flap fell off the plane.

The culprit, it turned out, was bolts that attach the flap to the wing. The plane landed safely, but a week later the FAA ordered airlines to inspect 767 wing-flap bolts within 15 days. The agency says domestic carriers inspected 210 jets. One-quarter had loose bolts; one had a sheared bolt; and one had a sheared nut.

The Delta plane that lost its flap was produced in 1982 - four years before Kerr started to catalog his allegations. The Monitor could not determine whether any of the 210 aircraft inspected was cited in the Kerr complaint. The FAA refuses to divulge which planes had bolt problems.

Still, allegations about under- and overtightening of bolts are a recurring theme in the Kerr documents. It's an area that some current and former Boeing workers agree was a problem.

"These were areas I fudged in regularly," says the worker who "drilled and filled" on the final body join. "But I don't think we did anything that affected the integrity of the aircraft - although that wing flap that fell off in Texas has a lot of people worried."

In his deposition, Kerr alleges that bolts were seriously overtightened on an Air France plane, registered as F-GHGG.

According to Kerr, the eight bolts holding the tail on this aircraft were overtightened by 300 percent. An inexperienced mechanic performed the work, Kerr charges, and Boeing inspectors and engineers signed off on the job when they shouldn't have.

The deposition goes on to state that the metal under the bolts was compressed by the mistake, and thereby structurally weakened. The bolts were replaced, Kerr says, but the tail structure was not. One production worker says 10 engineers refused to sign off on this job, but inspectors found an engineer on a weekend shift who agreed to sign off on it.

To check this claim, the Monitor faxed Air France copies of documents about this and other aircraft on Sept. 29. George Andrieu, assistant director of service quality for Air France, says he hasn't had time to inspect the records for these aircraft.

Dark side of the line

In one of its most serious charges, the Kerr document alleges that production workers in the Everett plant have sabotaged planes. Sabotage allegedly occurred for two reasons: before strikes, when workers were angry with Boeing and hoped to create work for replacement laborers, and anti-Asian sentiment.

"A lot of Japan-bashing ... goes on at Boeing.... And for whatever reason, no other airline receives the amount of damage, significant damage, to their airplanes ... that the Japanese airplanes do," says Kerr's deposition.

In the documents, Kerr surmises that anti-Asian sentiment on the production line is a carry-over from America's past wars in the Far East. He claims Boeing was aware of sabotage, but did nothing about it.

Other production-line workers, some of whom did not want to give their names because they still work at Boeing, confirm that sabotage has occurred. They think most of it is caught before planes leave the plant, although they say they can't be sure.

The Kerr deposition says two aircraft on the production line for China Airlines were damaged, on purpose, by production workers.

"Evidently, an electrician reached into a wire bundle on either side of the tail and snipped just the right wire so that the tail would move ... to ... one position and stay there," the deposition states. "The planes would have stalled out and crashed. These two incidents were ... corrected."

Prior to that incident, the document states, various electricians were talking about sabotaging these planes because they felt China had mistreated US prisoners during the Korean War.

Tarsi agrees with those assertions. "That's true about China Airlines," he says. "And he's right about the anti-Asian sentiment. There's a whole lot of it."

Another worker remembers sabotage leading up to a strike. "Just before the [1989] strike, guys would do things like cut power-feed cables, loosen up parts, take apart machinery," he says. "It pretty much got caught."

Another Boeing worker, who used to join the wing to the 767 fuselage, agrees. "During the strike, a little bit of sabotage occurred. In 1989, the one I remember - cut a big wire bundle," including wires to fire detectors. "People do it for the game: 'Here you go, company. Hope your scabs stay busy.' "

Final approach

Kerr admits in the document that Boeing inspectors or supervisors may have caught most of the specific problems with individual aircraft that he cites.

The only ones who know for sure are Boeing and, perhaps, the airlines that fly the planes. So far, most of them are not talking.

Under the False Claims Act, the government is supposed to decide if there is enough evidence in Kerr's whistleblower suit to join the case. If it does, the court documents will be unsealed. If the government decides not to join, Kerr can continue the suit on his own behalf. If an out-of-court settlement is reached between the government, Kerr, and Boeing, the results of the investigation may never be known.

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...