The Boeing Blowout: Whistleblower Concerns Could Have Prevented Crisis
Apr 2024
4 minutes

The Boeing Blowout: Whistleblower Concerns Could Have Prevented Crisis

For those with a fear of flying, the thought of parts falling off during takeoff or airplane components malfunctioning mid-flight represents the ultimate fear scenario.

US airline regulators have launched an investigation after an engine cowling on a Boeing plane fell off during takeoff and struck the wing flap.

To make a long story short, on the Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 flight a plug designed to secure the plane’s door panel blew off while in flight, leading to the entire panel falling off and passengers being faced with a gaping hole in the aircraft. Although no passengers were killed, the consequences could have easily been fatal for those on board.

The panel was manufactured by Spirit AeroSystems before being sent to Boeing for final installation. 

With an investigation into the event still underway, it’s unclear who is to blame for the incident, and there is much to learn from how Boeing and Spirit Airlines have handled the situation thus far, including an apparent failure to address issues brought to the airlines’ attention by a whistleblower.

The Boeing Whistleblower: Meet Ed Pierson, Former Senior Manager at the Boeing 737 Factory

Accidents happen all the time, but could manufacturers have prevented the Alaska Airlines door blowout?

Perhaps so, had Boeing heeded the warnings of Ed Pierson, a former senior manager at the Boeing 737 factory. Back in the spring of 2023, Pierson — now working as the executive director of the Foundation for Aviation Safety — wrote a letter to the CEO of Alaska Airlines regarding problems with the performance and quality of new planes coming out of production. 

Manufacturing aeroplanes is no small task, requiring tremendous oversight and monitoring to ensure all production processes meet the necessary quality assurance and safety standards. As such, receiving a letter from Ed Pierson should have been a tipping point for improving production processes.

Yet, Pierson would never receive a response and, in turn, the Foundation for Aviation Safety would go on to release a report in September of 2023 addressing concerns for the very plane model (the Boeing 737 Max) that would become the center of attention in the Alaska Airlines door blowout.

Even in his time working at Boeing, Pierson expressed dissatisfaction with manufacturing conditions.

In an interview with WBUR, Pierson states he had planned to stay at the factory for many more years before his sudden departure in 2018, but a “serious decline in everything” at the factory pushed him away:

“Every facet of the company inside the factory was a mess. We were rushing planes out the door. Employees were reporting all kinds of issues. My team and other teams were expressing frustration. There was people working ridiculous amounts of overtime and all our performance metrics in the factory were going in the wrong direction.”

When asked if he felt the need to leave due to Boeing sending out unsafe planes from their manufacturing facilities, Pierson answered a resounding, “Yes. That was a big part of it.” 

Lessons to Learn: 5 Takeaways from the Boeing crisis

  1. Taking Whistleblowers Seriously Can Prevent Catastrophic Failures: Had Boeing taken the time to thoroughly address the issues brought to the surface by Ed Pierson and his colleagues, steps could have been taken to remediate faulty production processes. Instead, Boeing chose to ignore the complaints of whistleblowers, leading to the eventual door blow out. 
  2. Providing Clear Channels for Reporting Protects the Company’s Reputation: Before leaving the company and taking matters into his own hands, Ed Pierson tried to alert Boeing directly to the safety and production concerns he witnessed in the factory. He attempted to make his complaints heard both while working at the factory and again years later after creating the Foundation for Aviation Safety. Due to a lack of response, Pierson was forced to released a public report to make his and the Foundation’s concerns heard. 
  3. Ensuring Strong Communication Between Manufacturers is Vital: The lack of clarity surrounding who is at fault for the incident demonstrates the lack of communication between Spirit and Boeing. With better controls and oversight between the two, the manufacturers may have been able to pinpoint exactly where production problems were occurring to devise a strategy to resolve safety issues across the board. 
  4. Faulty Production & A Lack of Accountability Costs Airlines Majorly: The Alaska Airlines incident has given rise to many new problems for both Boeing and Spirit. As a result of the accident, four passengers on the plane have launched a lawsuit against the airlines. Additionally, Alaska Airlines had to issue full refunds to all passengers of the flight, on top of $1,500 cash payments to cover incidental expenses. 
  5. Failing to Address Whistleblowers' Concerns Can Spell Disaster: Ultimately, the greatest failure of this entire event comes down to the airlines’ failure to address the concerns of whistleblowers. Whistleblowing programs are not mere formalities — they are crucial initiatives for ensuring safety and quality in manufacturing processes. Had Boeing taken the complaints of whistleblowers seriously, this entire incident could have been handled away from the public eye, and passenger safety would have never been put at such tremendous risk.  

Dealing with whistleblowing complaints head-on matters not just for safety but for the overall reputation and resilience of your business. Don’t wait until it’s too late to remediate corporate misconduct — get started with Confide’s end-to-end whistleblowing platform today.

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