Ed Pierson on Boeing’s Criminal Record and the Battle for Airline Safety

Kayak, a popular airline booking website and app, has built in a feature that allows passengers to screen out flights that are scheduled to use any 737 MAX airplane.

The public is increasingly wary about flying the MAX because of two crashes that killed 347 passengers – one in Indonesia in October 2018 and one in Ethiopia in March 2019.

Then last month, on January 5, 2024,  a door plug blew out midair on an Alaska Airlines 737 MAX. Remarkably, the plane returned safely and no one was killed. 

An initial National Transportation Safety Board investigation found that four bolts used to secure the door plug that blew off an Alaska Airlines plane were removed – and appear not to have been replaced – at Boeing’s factory in Renton, Washington.

And now, the Kayak MAX filter is reportedly being heavily used by increasingly MAX skittish airline passengers.

But that doesn’t mean that if you book a flight on a non-MAX plane, that plane won’t be switched out for a MAX at the last minute.

That happened recently to Ed Pierson, a former Boeing production manager for the 737 and now executive director of the Foundation for Aviation Safety.

“I was flying to New Jersey last year,” Pierson told Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview last week. “The day I got to the airport, I got the tail number of the plane and looked it up on a database. So I knew it was not a MAX airplane.”

“I walked through security, I got a cup of coffee and walked onto the plane. I was in no rush. I only had a carry on. I was the second to last person to board the plane. And I thought – wow, this looks like a new plane, but it can’t be a MAX. Maybe it’s a newer NG. I sat down and looked at the card and it said MAX. Without my knowledge, the plane was switched to a MAX.”

“I got up and walked down the aisle. They had closed the door. And the flight attendant said to me – sir, you can’t get off the plane. I said – I have to get off the plane, I’m not flying on this plane.” 

“She asked – why not? And I said because I purposefully scheduled myself not to be on a MAX and this turns out to be a MAX. She’s trying to stop me. I was being respectful. And I was waiting for her to open the door for me. And she says – what do you know about the MAX?”

“I said – it’s a long story, but I just want you to know that I don’t believe this plane is safe. And she walked me off the plane. And I walked up to the gate. And a gate agent stops me and says – sir, what are you doing? And I said – I’m not going to fly on this plane.”

“She said – well, you just got on the plane and got off. We have security procedures we have to go through now. I said okay that’s fine. They did their thing and understood I wasn’t a bad guy. I waited all night. Luckily I could stay at the USO because I have a military background. And I caught a midnight flight to New Jersey on another plane.”

It’s a real problem for consumers. But most people are going to roll the dice.

“It has happened in my family. My daughter has had flights where she scheduled on non MAX airplanes, she gets to the airport and at the last minute they switch. And she didn’t know they switched. She gets on the plane, she’s airborne and only then does she realize she’s on a MAX.” 

“There are people who say – to hell with it, I don’t care what plane I’m on. If it’s my time to go, it’s my time to go.”

“Then there is a group of people who are like – these planes are designed and built by these big companies, there is all of this oversight, there haven’t been any accidents recently, it must be of good quality. They are uncomfortable but they trust the system.”

“Then there is a third group that gets nervous about flying, they might need a drink before flying.”

“What you are seeing is that the middle group, who have been trusting, are now thinking – this trust level is way lower than it has ever been.” 

“People should not have to worry about this. You should be able to get your ticket, your boarding pass, get on the plane, get a seat and not worry about it.”

“But Boeing keeps taking shortcuts and we are going to pay for it.”

Pierson worked for Boeing for ten years, from 2008 to 2018, including as a flight operations senior manager and as a production manager within the 737 program.

He retired from Boeing after witnessing chaos on the factory floor and top management ignoring production quality warning bells.

When we last interviewed you in January 2022, you called out Boeing for production problems. Give us the nutshell of what has happened since we last spoke.

“Obviously, the Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 accident is the one that has garnered the most attention, because of the dramatic ripping of the door open. People could have died. They could have lost the whole plane,” Pierson said.

“Boeing is continuing to ramp up production. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is continuing to be ineffective. There continues to be evidence that airplanes that are in service are having serious problems – not just the 737-9 but also the 737-8.” 

“After the two MAX crashes, there have been at least twenty serious production quality defects that have come to light – that’s almost one every two or three months.” 

“Recently we had hardware missing on some of the rudders. We’ve had cracks in the vertical fins because some shimming was not done properly. There have been issues with the mis-drilling of holes in the pressure dome of the airplane.”

“This has been non stop. The Foundation did a report in September. We looked at the FAA’s own data and found that Alaska Airlines had over 1,200 safety incident reports on 53 new MAX airplanes. These airplanes were all less than two years old. And many of these were reports of repeat failures but they covered a whole range of systems – everything from flight management computers to issues with the engines and anti-icing.”

What is your understanding as to what caused the Alaska Airlines blowout?

“I don’t want to speculate, but from everything we have read it’s clearly a breakdown in production quality. And it’s not just the bolts that are missing.”

Didn’t Boeing’s CEO David Calhoun say – this is our mistake, we take responsibility?

“His words don’t matter now. He’s got all the right language. But all he talks about is ramping up production and meeting sales goals. He doesn’t go into the factory much at all. He doesn’t spend time with the workers on the factory floor of the Boeing factories. My personal impression is that the executives will learn more in a day walking the floor of the factory than spending a month listening to powerpoint briefings.”

He has been spending time in the U.S. Senate this week. Why is he there?

“When Boeing moved its headquarters from Chicago to Arlington, Virginia, it was pretty obvious that it was Boeing’s effort to get closer to Congress so that they could maybe have more opportunities to lobby Congress.” 

“His going over to Congress and meeting with the Senators, I’m assuming it was damage control. He’s going over there to try and reassure Senators and the American public that the planes are safe. Behind closed doors, he’s probably trying to make the case that the planes need to be ungrounded as soon as possible – and they just did that. That seems incredibly shortsighted and irresponsible.”

“Let’s say these bolts were missing and the manufacturer made a mistake. Just saying that doesn’t get to the root of the problem. How did these processes break down? Where did they break down? Why did they break down? This requires a lot more thought and effort. Just to say – yep, we’re missing the bolts, let’s put the bolts back in and call it quits – that doesn’t solve the problem. As we have pointed out over and over again, these aircraft system failures that are occurring are not normal.”

“When Boeing is pressed about the safety of their airplanes, their standard response is – the planes have flown millions of miles safely and the airplane dispatch reliability is 98 percent.”

“But what people have to remember is that millions of miles safely may sound impressive, but that provides zero insight into the individual quality of individual planes. When those two MAX planes crashed in Indonesia and Ethiopia, they had 100 percent dispatch reliability. So that’s not a measure of safety.”

“Each airplane is unique. The company is making a bunch of broken promises. They do a safety stand down for a day.”

What’s a safety stand down?

“In the military, that’s when all operations stop and you talk about safety all day. It’s to remind people that what we do is important. But it’s insulting to do a safety stand down when you should be slowing the production down, or stopping it altogether, to ensure that you are building high quality products. Instead they are pushing planes out the door hoping they are okay.”

“A lot of experienced people left Boeing. You can’t easily replace those types of skilled employees. For the new workers, you are not investing time in training. You are not providing adequate quality control and supervision. They are working ridiculous hours. Every variable that was in place before the two crashes are alive and well at the 737 factory at the Boeing company.”

The Boeing deferred prosecution agreement expired earlier this year. The Justice Department will most probably move to dismiss the charges. 

“We have written several letters to the Department of Justice. Haven’t heard anything from anybody at the Department. Recently, we sent a letter to Judge Reed O’Connor, who is hearing the case in Texas. We outlined how we believe Boeing has failed to comply with the deferred prosecution agreement by misrepresenting the safety of the airplane.”

“One thing you hear Boeing saying all the time is – our airplanes meet or exceed all safety standards. What they don’t say is – our airplanes, except for the 737 MAX, meet and exceed all safety standards. That plane doesn’t comply with a number of federal safety standards.”

“While I was at Boeing, before the two crashes, I had conversations with senior executives at the company and wrote to the CEO. It’s appalling that the Department of Justice limited this to fraud against the FAA. It’s clear to me that they are doing much worse than that. It’s our understanding that the judge has to decide what’s in the interest of the public.”

I saw that the letter to Judge O’Connor is on your website. Is your previous letter to the Justice Department on your website?

“No. I provided other information to the Justice Department that we don’t want public. We provided that information to the Department and the FBI, because we wanted them to investigate.”

Is there any indication that they have investigated the information in your letter?

“No indication at all. After the second crash, there was a team of people who came out from D.C. to interview me at FBI headquarters in Seattle. During that interview, I told them there were many manufacturing issues at the Boeing plant here that they should look at. There were promises they were going to do something. And from what I could see they did nothing.”

[For the complete q/a Interview with Ed Pierson, see 38 Corporate Crime Reporter 7(13), February 12, 2024, print edition only.]

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