By Nick Schwellenbach
Last week, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued an emergency airworthiness directive requiring emergency inspections of 175 older model Boeing 737 airplanes, after a six-foot hole that was torn in the ceiling of a Southwest Airlines 737 carrying 118 passengers led to an emergency landing earlier this month. Metal fatigue and cracking led to the hole. Boeing has said it did not expect these problems at this relatively early stage in the 737 Classic’s lifespan (737 Classics are -300/-400/-500 series of the plane). Cracks were found in other 737 Classics since the incident.
In reaction to the discovery of cracks in 737 Classics and the FAA directive, Boeing has said its newer 737s—the 737 Next Generation (the -600/-700/-800/-900 series of the 737)—have a significantly different fuselage and therefore do not need to be subjected to emergency inspections. But Boeing has argued otherwise in a high-profile whistleblower lawsuit. In March, weeks before the Southwest incident, Boeing said that the 737 Next Generation fuselage is “unchanged” from the 737 Classic.
So which is it, Boeing? Is the fuselage of the 737 Next Generation “significantly different” from the 737 Classic as one of your executives told the Wall Street Journal last week? Or is it “unchanged”?
Boeing can’t have it both ways. Either (1) the fuselage is different and they may need to produce documents to whistleblowers seeking the documents in their lawsuit, or (2) the fuselage is unchanged and the FAA needs to seriously consider subjecting not just the 737 Classics, but the 737 Next Generations to emergency inspections.
The whistleblowers—Taylor Smith, Jeannine Prewitt, and James Ailes, all former Boeing employees—pointed out Boeing’s contradictions in a court brief last Friday. Their attorney cited a Boeing motion from March 10, 2011 in their case, which said (note: the “relators” are the whistleblowers):
Relators do not specifically identify what documents they think Boeing is withholding from production. It appears that the Relators’ “informed belief” that unidentified documents have been withheld is based upon their misimpression that the 737 NG fuselage was significantly modified from the 737 Classic and therefore entirely certified anew. The documents Boeing has produced to Relators clearly state the opposite. The 737 NG fuselage is considered to be “existing” and “unchanged” from the 737 Classic.
“Since [the Southwest] incident and the issuance of the FAA Directive, Boeing is now telling the world—that is, everyone except this Court—that the fuselage of the Next Generation was significantly redesigned from that of the Classic,” the whistleblowers’ lawyer Corlin Pratt said in their brief.
Repeatedly since the Southwest incident in early April, Boeing employees have publicly said the 737 Next Generation fuselage is different and there is no need to do emergency inspections on it.
The Boeing executive emphasized that the company's engineers and safety experts "remain completely confident" that younger versions of Boeing 737 jets have a "significantly different and much improved" skin-fastening design, and therefore don't face any danger of premature cracking.
Mr. Richter said that the newest generations of 737s – starting with the 600 series that entered service in 1998 and were known as the Next-Generation 737s – incorporated significant design changes intended to reduce the chance of lap joint cracking. The changes reduce the amount of bending.
We’ve sent Boeing an email requesting comment and will update this post if they respond.
UPDATE: Boeing spokesman Marc Birtel emailed us a response, however, he did not answer our questions about the seeming inconsistency between Boeing's positions. He did not reply to our follow-up question specifically asking him to address POGO's earlier questions. His full response is as follows:
This is an old story and has been circulating for several years. The case remains in litigation and is proceeding through the court system in the normal course. The False Claims Act lawsuit, filed by three former Boeing employees alleging that faulty parts were incorporated into Boeing military and commercial aircraft, is without merit. The Department of Defense evaluated these allegations and determined the allegations had no merit and the Department of Justice declined twice to intervene in this lawsuit. The Federal Aviation Administration conducted an evaluation and concluded there was no concern with the Ducommun parts on Boeing aircraft.
Boeing has a multi-tiered quality control process that includes production and maintenance inspections that have been demonstrated through decades of use to be an effective method to maintain quality and safety.
Nick Schwellenbach is POGO's Director of Investigations. Follow Nick on Twitter.
Image by Flickr user girl_onthe_les, used under Creative Commons License.