By Lori Aratani and Ian Duncan / The Washington Post
A former senior manager at Boeing said he repeatedly warned company executives about production issues at the factory where the 737 Max jets were being built, but his recommendations to shut down production were rebuffed.
Edward Pierson, who was a senior manager at Boeing’s Renton, Washington, factory, said a push to increase production of the 737 Max from 47 a month to 52, created a “factory in chaos.”
Employees were working seven days. Overtime had more than doubled and in some cases, Pierson said, employees were doing jobs for which they had no training.
“The factory did not have enough skilled employees, specifically mechanics, electricians and technicians to keep up with the backlog of work,” Pierson said in remarks prepared for a hearing Wednesday before the House Transportation Committee. “I witnessed numerous instances where manufacturing employees failed to communicate effectively between shifts, often leaving crews to wonder what work was properly completed.”
Pierson is one of several witnesses expected to testify before the House committee investigating two crashes on Boeing 737 Max jets that killed 346 people.
The Max crashes, less than five months apart, have led to intense scrutiny of Boeing, its relationship with the Federal Aviation Administration and the process by which the aircraft was certified.
FAA Administrator Steve Dickson, who will ultimately decide when the Max, which has been grounded since March, will fly again, also is scheduled to appear, as is former FAA employee Michael Collins.
The concerns raised by Pierson involve the production of the Max and not the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS, the automated flight control system implicated in both crashes. Boeing has been working for several months on a software fix for the system. In both crashes, faulty data from a single sensor caused MCAS to mistakenly trigger, repeatedly forcing the planes’ noses down as pilots struggled to regain control.
Boeing’s decision to have MCAS rely on just one sensor, and not both of the available ones, has been a key question in the crash investigations.
Pierson, who retired from Boeing last year, said he has been interviewed by the Justice Department and by the Transportation Department’s inspector general, which are conducting their own investigations.Pierson agrees that MCAS must be fixed, but said he is concerned the focus on MCAS might prevent investigators from thoroughly examining other factors that could have played a role in the crashes.
“I remain gravely concerned that the dysfunctional production conditions may have contributed to the tragic 737 Max crashes and that the flying public will remain at risk unless this unstable production environment is rigorously investigated and closely monitored by regulators on an ongoing basis,” he said.
Pierson’s concerns were first reported by NBC News.
A Boeing spokesman said company officials were aware of Pierson’s concerns about production, discussed them in detail and took “appropriate steps to assess them.”
“Mr. Pierson did the right thing by elevating his concerns, and the fact that he was able to personally brief the head of the program and the company’s General Counsel demonstrates Boeing’s commitment to safety and to hearing employee concerns,” Gordon Johndroe said in an email.
The Chicago-based company said it did not think allegations raised by Pierson had any bearing on the two crashes.
“The suggestion by Mr. Pierson of a link between his concerns and the recent MAX accidents is completely unfounded,” Johndroe said. “Mr. Pierson raises issues about the production of the 737 MAX, yet none of the authorities investigating these accidents have found that production conditions in the 737 factory contributed in any way to these accidents. And the suggestion of such a linkage is inconsistent with the facts that have been reported about these accidents.”
However, Rep. Peter DeFaizo, D-Ore., chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said Pierson’s account and that of other whistleblowers who have come forward are critical to the committee’s investigation of Boeing.
DeFazio said the problems that his committee have uncovered with the Max and Boeing’s other planes demonstrate how the company’s safety culture has been “significantly eroded.”
“We’re looking at a process that’s broken,” DeFazio said in an interview. “We can no longer trust Boeing.”
He said that means the government will have to step up and apply more scrutiny.
DeFazio said Collins, who is slated to testify Wednesday, will discuss his involvement in agency disputes about the safety of rudder cables on the Max. DeFazio raised that issue in a letter to the FAA last month, saying it appeared agency managers overruled safety concerns in deference to Boeing.
“They seem to accede to Boeing too much,” DeFazio said.
Lynn Lunsford, an FAA spokesman, declined to say whether the agency’s inspectors found problems at Boeing’s factories similar to those pointed out by Pierson.
“Our daily oversight continues and we pursue enforcement cases as they arise,” Lunsford said. “We don’t discuss the details of ongoing investigations.”
In recent weeks, the FAA has taken public steps to appear tougher on Boeing. Last week, the agency proposed a $3.9 million penalty on the company, alleging it knowingly told the government that planes built with defective wing parts were safe.
Pierson, a former Navy squad commander and graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, who joined Boeing in 2008, went to work for the team building the 737 Max jets in April 2015. He was a senior manager with the company’s test and evaluation team, which was responsible for flight testing newly manufactured planes. He said he began seeing problems in 2017 and by June 2018 had grown, “… gravely concerned that Boeing was prioritizing production speed over quality and safety.”
Production was lagging because the factory was having difficulty getting the parts it needed, but despite that, Boeing pushed to increase production by five planes a month, he said.
Pierson said he took his concerns to the general manager of the 737 Max program. In an email, he wrote that he was concerned the push to meet delivery schedules could result in safety hazards being “inadvertently” embedded in Boeing airplanes.
“Frankly right now all my internal warning bells are going off,” he said in the email. “And for the first time in my life, I’m sorry to say that I’m hesitant about putting my family on a Boeing airplane.”
Pierson told Campbell the company should shut down production of the jetliner until the production problems could be resolved, but that did not happen.
Pierson retired from the company in August 2018.
Even so, he continued to press company officials to address his concerns.
After a 737 Max operated by Lion Air crashed in October 2018, Pierson went directly to Boeing chief executive Dennis Muilenburg and the company’s general counsel. Unsatisfied with the response, in late February 2019 he wrote to the company’s board of directors. On March 10, a second 737 Max jet operated by Ethiopian Airlines crashed, killing all aboard.
Pierson’s lawyer, Eric Havian, said his client spent 18 months trying to get a response to his concerns. Going public, Havian said, was a last resort.
“The response of U.S. regulators is inexplicable,” Havian said. “If regulators don’t closely examine the production process, it’s going to happen again the next time Boeing gets behind.”
The Washington Post’s Michael Laris contributed to this report.