Two major stories emerged this week, neither favorable to Boeing. The first entailed a whistleblower who claims that Boeing installed faulty oxygen generators in Boeing 787 aircraft built in Charleston. The second is that the FAA and other regulators have rejected the documentation accompanying the MCAS software changes, requesting that Boeing supply additional information. This will likely further delay the return to service of the 737 MAX.
The revelations regarding the Boeing 787 oxygen system indicate faulty parts were allegedly installed on Dreamliners produced in North Charleston, South Carolina in order to keep deliveries on-time and at low cost. The implications are that, in an emergency, these flawed components could leave passengers without oxygen.
The whistleblower, John Barnett, is a Boeing retiree who was a 32-year employee and formerly a quality manager in Charleston. He was decommissioning oxygen systems with minor cosmetic damage and noticed that a number of bottles were not discharging properly. After arranging a controlled test, it was found that 75 of the 300 bottles tested “straight out of stock” failed to operate properly. After reporting the action to superiors and the FAA, the issue was apparently stonewalled within Boeing.
He also alleges that Boeing failed to follow its own procedures to track parts through the assembly process, allowing a number of defective items to be “lost.” He also claimed that workers under pressure even fitted sub-standard parts from scrap bins to production aircraft.
Boeing has pushed back against these charges, indicating that its oxygen systems are thoroughly tested before and after delivery and that the FAA determined that recently reported issues do not threaten safe flight. Boeing did concede that in 2017 it identified “some oxygen bottles received from the supplier that were not deploying properly,” and that defective bottles were removed from production and not installed on aircraft.
The software that Boeing is preparing to update MCAS and the flight control system on the MAX is currently being audited by the FAA and international agencies. While reports have been somewhat cryptic, the findings of that audit require Boeing to provide software documentation in a different format than the one previously used with the FAA. That will require rework, which could require from several days to several weeks to complete.
According to news reports, one person briefed on the matter characterized the situation to indicate that Boeing’s paperwork had gaps, was substandard, and meant regulators could not complete the audit, a necessary step in the re-certification process. That person indicated that it could take “weeks” to satisfy regulators, although Boeing believes it can address the omissions in a matter of days. Either way, having documentation rejected does not reflect well on Boeing.
Software documentation issues on the Airbus A400 military aircraft with EASA in 2008 caused delays when a software audit failed, which could be seen as a precedent. With software documentation becoming more central for aircraft certification as aircraft have become increasingly complex, a lack of proper documentation does create delays. This is not what Boeing needs when it is approaching the home stretch of the MAX grounding.
Boeing’s stated goal of having the MAX re-certified by the FAA before the end of the year appears to be in jeopardy, as this audit must be completed before a final test flight and the agency will require at least 30 days after that flight to re-certify the aircraft. With seven weeks remaining in the year, it now appears highly probable that recertification may not take place until 2020, with airline re-entry into service in the March/April time frame at the earliest.