Dish soap, hotel key cards, and confusion: Boeing FAA audit unearths dozens of issues

Over the past two months, passengers traveling aboard Boeing aircrafts have endured a sudden, injury-inducing nose-dive, a mid-air wheel detachment, and an emergency door plug horrifyingly blasting open during a flight. Now, new details emerging from a Federal Aviation Administration audit of the world’s second largest commercial aircraft manufacturer may run deeper than previously thought. 

The six-week audit into Boeing and its 737 Max body supplier Spirit AeroSystems found “dozens” of quality control problems at production facilities, according to a slide presentation reviewed by The New York Times. In one case, mechanics working for Spirit were even observed using Dawn dish soap on a door seal in place of lubricant. The seal was then reportedly cleaned up with a “wet cheesecloth.” In another instance, Spirit mechanics were reportedly found using a hotel key card to check a door seal, which isn’t standard practice. 

Overall, out of 89 product audits, Boeing managed to pass just 56 of them while failing 33, according to the report. Many of the problems at the Boeing facility, according to the slide presentation seen by the Times, involved the company not following “approved manufacturing process, procedure or instruction.” Others reportedly dealt with a lack of proper quality control documentation. Spirit received failing grades on seven audits and passing grades on six. At Boeing, six engineers averaged a poor score of just 58% on a test reportedly analyzing how well they understood their company’s quality-control processes.

FAA audit comes on the heels of multiple high-profile safety incidents 

Boeing has received steady international attention for months following a spate of safety incidents, some of which have resulted in serious injuries. Just last week, a Boeing plane heading to Japan from San Francisco was diverted after a wheel reportedly detached from the jet mid-flight and landed in a parking lot, leaving several vehicles severely damaged. More recently, at least 50 people traveling on a Boeing 787 Dreamliner headed to Australia from New Zealand were injured after a “technical event” reportedly caused the plane to suddenly nosedive and sent some passengers hurling toward the aircraft’s ceiling. Thirteen of those passengers were transported to a nearby hospital. Another Boeing 737 Max departing from Houston was recently forced to land shortly after takeoff due to the engine reportedly sucking up plastic wrap left on the tarmac prior to departure. 

The door plug blowout which ultimately sparked the major FAA audit resulted in an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board which claimed four bolts were missing from the door plug prior to its breach. Three passengers onboard the Alaskan Airlines flight at the time are suing the airline and Boeing for $1 billion over claims the companies acted negligently. Now, the Department of Justice is getting involved with its own criminal investigation.

This week, a former Boeing quality manager turned whistleblower named John Barnett was reportedly found dead in Charleston, South Carolina, from what the Charleston county coroner’s office said appeared to be a self-inflicted wound. The former employee, who worked in Boeing’s Charleston facility for 32 years, previously alleged time-crunched workers had fitted sub-standard parts to some Boeing 787 Dreamliner models. Barnett had filed whistleblower complaints alleging Boeing retaliated against him following his statements, a claim Boeing has denied.  

Boeing faces multiple federal investigations

In a statement sent to PopSci, the FAA said its audit of Boeing’s production lines went “above and beyond [the administration’s] standard inspection process.” The findings, which are part of a larger ongoing investigation, revealed non-compliance issues in Boeing’s manufacturing process, parts handling, and product control. The FAA did not provide access to the full audit report but noted it will continue to have an increased onsite presence in Boeing and Spirit’s facilities in Renton, Washington, and Wichita, Kansas respectively. 

“This won’t be back to business as usual for Boeing. They must commit to real and profound improvements,” FAA Administrator Mike Whitaker wrote in a statement. “Making foundational change will require a sustained effort from Boeing’s leadership, and we are going to hold them accountable every step of the way.”

Boeing acknowledged the FAA findings in a statement sent to PopSci and said the company was continuing to “implement immediate changes and develop a comprehensive action plan to strengthen safety and quality, and build the confidence of our customers and their passengers.” Spirit did not immediately respond to our request for comment, but a spokesperson for the company told the Times it was “reviewing all identified nonconformities for corrective action.” 

“We are squarely focused on taking significant, demonstrated action with transparency at every turn,” the Boeing spokesperson added. 

The FAA recently gave Boeing a 90-day-deadline to present a plan for quality control improvements following a spate of potentially dangerous incidents. That ultimatum came around the same time an expert panel directed by Congress to review Boeing’s safety process reportedly found a “disconnect” between senior management and employees on issues revolving around the company’s safety culture. The panel report, Reuters notes, found a “lack of awareness of safety-related metrics at all levels of the organization.”

If confirmed, the FAA audit findings will likely add even more ammunition to critics who argue Boeing, once heralded for its expert engineering, has gained a reputation for cutting corners and short term profits over customer safety. Boeing fervently denied those accusations of a company wide shift, but the FAA audits shows the recent headline-grabbing events are, at the least, not one-off anomalies.