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NTSB: Boeing hasn’t produced work records on Alaska Airlines midair blowout

by Staff

National Transportation Safety Board chair Jennifer Homendy delivered scathing testimony during a U.S. Senate hearing Wednesday criticizing Boeing for lack of cooperation in the agency’s investigation of the Alaska Airlines midair door plug blowout on Jan. 5.

Afterward, Boeing scrambled to respond to her remarks revealing a deep disconnect with the safety agency.

“Boeing has not provided us with the documents and information that we have requested numerous times over the past few months,” Homendy testified.

She said Boeing has not provided the records required to be kept of the work done to open and then reinstall the door plug.

“There are two options. Either they exist and we don’t have them or they do not exist,” Homendy said.

She added that if the latter option is true, that “raises concerns about quality assurance, quality management safety management systems within Boeing.”

A Boeing statement issued after Homendy testified seemed to imply that the documentation does not exist.

“With respect to documentation, if the door plug removal was undocumented there would be no documentation to share,” Boeing said, in indirect but pointed phrasing that reads as if vetted by company lawyers.

As previously reported by The Seattle Times, Boeing employees opened the door plug to allow mechanics from supplier Spirit AeroSytems to fix some poorly installed rivets in the adjacent door frame. The Boeing mechanics then incorrectly re-closed it, leaving out four key retainer bolts that would have prevented the in-flight blowout.

A source familiar with the matter, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the investigation, said Wednesday that Boeing work was not documented.

Homendy also said the NTSB has asked Boeing for the names of the employees on a 25-person team who work on doors and door plugs at the Renton plant, but hasn’t received the names.

“It’s two months later. We know for a fact that there is a team that deals with the doors in Renton. There’s an entire team of 25 people and a manager,” Homendy said. “The manager has been out on medical leave, we’ve not been able to interview that individual. We’ve asked for the names of the other 25 people, have not received the names.”

“We don’t have the records. We don’t have the names of the 25 people,” Homendy said. “It’s absurd that two months later, we don’t have that.”

Clearly the Senate testimony hit home. After the hearing ended, Boeing in a statement noted its “deep respect for the NTSB and the critical role they play in aviation safety” and said it has now provided the 25 names.

“Early in the investigation, we provided the NTSB with names of Boeing employees, including door specialists, who we believed would have relevant information,” Boeing said, meaning employees who worked around the door plug on the Alaska Airlines plane that had the blowout.

However that didn’t provide the NTSB the names of all the individuals it wanted to interview. So on Saturday, the agency issued a written request to Boeing for the full list of names of employees on the 737 MAX door team.

“We have now provided the full list of individuals on the 737 door team, in response to a recent request,” Boeing said after the hearing.

Boeing also asserted that “Since the first moments following the Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 accident, we have worked proactively and transparently to fully support the NTSB’s investigation.”

That statement is flagrantly contradicted by Homendy’s testimony.

Following the release of Boeing’s statement, NTSB spokesperson Eric Weiss said “Chair Homendy stands by her accurate testimony.”

NTSB conducting interviews in Renton

Homendy was also critical of Spirt AeroSystems, which builds the 737 MAX fuselage and which originally installed the door plug in Wichita, Kan., implying that it too had withheld information.

She said that “we were just informed last week” that the three Spirit mechanics who worked in Renton to repair the poorly installed rivets were not direct Spirit employees but contractors, each from a different aerospace staffing company: AeroTEC of Seattle, Illinois-based Launch and Minnesota-based Strom Engineering.

Homendy said Spirit did not inform the agency of this. Its investigators learned this “through the individuals who were being interviewed that contacted us directly.”

“We have engaged our attorney on this matter,” Homendy added pointedly.

Spirit spokesperson Joe Buccino said in a statement that the company cannot talk about details of the investigation but “we are coordinating with the NTSB to address the chair’s comments.”

Homendy said NTSB investigators have been conducting interviews at Boeing’s Renton final assembly plant since Sunday and will continue to do so through the week.

Investigators interviewed those three Spirit contractors. But “we don’t know who did the work on the door plug,” Homendy insisted.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, the ranking Republican on the Commerce Committee, called Boeing’s lack of cooperation with the investigation “utterly unacceptable” and asked Homendy to update the Senate in one week about whether or not Boeing has provided the full list of names and all the records asked for.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., told Homendy it’s “beyond disappointing” that the lack of records and information from Boeing is “now stymieing your investigation.”

“We have an entire economy that depends on people getting this right and I thought that the [Boeing] CEO said that they would cooperate to the fullest,” Cantwell said.

After the hearing, Cantwell sent a letter to Boeing demanding that it “provide this investigative information to the NTSB within the next 48 hours.”

The NTSB is an independent federal agency tasked with investigating the causes of all civil aviation accidents and significant accidents in other forms of transportation. It makes recommendations to reduce risks in the future.

Parties to an NTSB investigation are legally required to cooperate. However, it’s possible that a parallel criminal investigation by the Department of Justice that’s looking into the door plug blowout could interfere with NTSB access to some information.

Any individuals who feel under threat of potential criminal prosecution will likely get lawyers and could decline to talk to the NTSB until the criminal case is cleared.

“Where it becomes a concern for us is when employees and others don’t feel safe to speak to us,” Homendy said of the Department of Justice probe.

In contrast to Boeing, Homendy said the Federal Aviation Administration “has been very cooperative and very helpful to us in the investigation.”

She assured the Senators that the investigation will be “very in-depth and very broad.”

“We’ll look at the procedures, policies. We will also look at other work that was done around the same time or within the last several years to see if there are concerns with other work or records that may be missing,” Homendy said. “We are also going in depth on safety culture, safety promotion, safety management as a whole.

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