New Boeing whistleblower alleges serious structural flaws on 787 and 777 jets

A Boeing quality engineer went public Tuesday with damaging allegations that the jet-maker took manufacturing shortcuts to increase production rates that led to potentially serious structural flaws on its 787 and 777 widebody planes.

The Boeing engineer, Sam Salehpour, alleged that almost 1,000 787s and about 400 777s currently flying are at risk of premature fatigue damage and structural failure.

On Jan. 19, lawyers for Salehpour wrote a letter detailing his allegations to Mike Whitaker, head of the Federal Aviation Administration, which is investigating the claims.

Salehpour will speak next week at a Senate hearing convened by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, “to examine Boeing’s broken safety culture, focusing on firsthand accounts.”

Salehpour spoke in a virtual news conference with his lawyers Tuesday. His lawyers said documents will be presented at the Senate hearing to substantiate his allegations.

Boeing, facing rising public alarm about multiple safety issues, responded with a detailed rebuttal to the 787 allegations.

“We are fully confident in the 787 Dreamliner,” Boeing said. “These claims about the structural integrity of the 787 are inaccurate.”


Tiny gaps left unfilled

The alleged flaws in the 787 Dreamliners relate to the tiny gaps at the joins of the fuselage sections that Boeing initially found in 2020. The discovery led Boeing to largely halt deliveries for almost two years at a projected cost of $6.3 billion.

In August 2022, the FAA approved the fix Boeing had developed and allowed 787 deliveries to resume.

The safety agency’s approval came after a deep investigation of Boeing’s manufacturing process and seemed to allay concerns.

Yet Salehpour said Tuesday the solution Boeing developed hid rather than fixed the problem.

He said engineers allowed the fuselage sections to be pushed together with excessive force before measuring for gaps, so as “to make it appear like the gaps didn’t exist.”

As a result, he said, the small filler pieces of material used to fill gaps were in many cases not inserted.

As the carbon composite fuselage skin, metal fasteners and joint fittings expand and contract with temperature changes during a flight, such unfilled gaps would theoretically allow the joined sections to move slightly relative to one another.

Over time, this can cause excessive wear and cause premature failure of the structure, Salehpour said. “It can cause a catastrophic failure.”

“I repeatedly produced reports for my supervisors and management based on Boeing’s own data demonstrating that the gaps in the 787 were not being properly measured,” he said.

Jumping on panels to make them fit

Salehpour claimed that for speaking up he was retaliated against, harassed by management, shut out of meetings and even threatened with physical violence by a supervisor.

Then he was transferred out of the 787 program to the 777 program, where he said he “hoped there would be fewer problems.”

“That turns out to be not true,” he said.

On the 777 program, he said he found that a new fuselage build system that Boeing first introduced in 2015 was implemented poorly so that the panels didn’t align properly. Mechanics had to use brute force to fasten them together, he said.

“I viewed severe misalignments when the plane came together, which was remedied by using unmeasured and unlimited amount of force to fit the misaligned holes and parts together,” Salehpour said. “I literally saw people jumping on the pieces of the airplane to get them to align.”

Jumping up and down would deform parts so that the holes aligned temporarily, allowing the mechanic to hit a pin with a mallet into the hole, he said.

This “can cause damage to the parts and creates risk factors for primary structures,” Salehpour added.

Boeing did not immediately respond to his allegations about the 777.

Technical details and documentation to properly assess Salehpour’s claims were not immediately available. Yet his news conference already opens a new front in Boeing’s struggle to calm public opinion and convince the world its airplanes are safe.