Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Lawsuit Questions Boeing Parts' Safety

WASHINGTON -- Jeannine Prewitt knew there was a problem when the holes wouldn't line up.

On a Boeing assembly line in Kansas in 2000, Prewitt saw workers drilling extra holes in the long aluminum ribs that make up the skeleton of a jetliner's fuselage. That was the only way the workers could attach the pieces, because some of its pre-drilled holes did not match those on the airframe.

Prewitt was a parts buyer, the third generation of her family to work at the Boeing factory on the outskirts of Wichita. She believed pieces going into one of the world's most-advanced and popular airliners, the Boeing 737, should fit like a glove.

The assembly workers Prewitt observed were not the only ones who noted problems with parts from a key Boeing supplier, AHF Ducommun of Los Angeles. Other workers told her many pieces had to be shoved or hammered into place. And documents reviewed by The Washington Post show that quality managers reported numerous problems at Ducommun in memos recorded in Boeing's system for monitoring its suppliers.

Whether questionable parts ended up in hundreds of Boeing 737s is the subject of a bitter dispute between the aerospace company and Prewitt and two other whistle-blowers. The two sides also have largely different views on what that could mean for the safety of the jets.

The whistle-blower lawsuit is in U.S. District Court in Wichita. No matter how it is resolved, it has exposed gaps in the way government regulators investigated the alleged problems in aircraft manufacturing.

Boeing said the lawsuit was without merit and that there was no safety issue. Even if faulty parts landed on the assembly line, the company said, none could have slipped through Boeing's controls and gotten into the jetliners. The whistle-blowers "are not intimately familiar with Boeing's quality-management system,'' said Cindy Wall, a company spokes-woman. "Our planes are safe.''

The three whistle-blowers contend that Boeing officials knew from their own audits about thousands of parts that did not meet specifications, allowed them to be installed and retaliated against people who raised questions. They say the parts, manufactured from 1994 to 2002, fit the Federal Aviation Administration's definition of "unapproved'' because they lack documentation proving they are airworthy. Moreover, they say, forcing a part into place could shorten its lifespan.

Under the U.S. False Claims Act, plaintiffs who prove the government was defrauded -- more than two-dozen jets went to the U.S. military -- could receive monetary damages.The lawsuit cites only the military jets, but the whistle-blowers said most of the parts in question also had been installed on commercial airliners.

After the whistle-blowers notified federal authorities in 2002, the FAA and the Pentagon looked into their charges. Each said its investigation cleared the airplane parts and found no reports of problems from military or civilian operators of Boeing jets. The Department of Transportation's inspector general also dismissed the charges. However, the FAA did not assess many of the whistle-blowers' key allegations. FAA inspectors examined only a small number of parts in the plants and did not visit any airplanes to inspect the roughly 200 types of parts questioned by the whistle-blowers.

Beverly Sharkey, who heads the parts investigation office, said the agency decided not to physically inspect the parts already on aircraft because that would have required the "destructive testing or peeling apart'' of hundreds of cabins. That was unnecessary, she said, because airlines had no reports of parts failures and the FAA had no reason to believe there was a safety problem. Inspectors visited the Ducommun and Boeing factories and said they found no problems.

But the agency has expressed concern in the past about similar parts, albeit on the previous generation of 737s. Last year, prompted by reports from some carriers of cracks, the FAA formally alerted U.S. air carriers that to inspect for possible fatigue cracks.