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    Op-Ed
    Tuesday, February 27, 2024

    The Boeing 737 Max 9 safety problems show the FAA isn’t doing its job. We need whistleblowers

    The United States has enjoyed years of extraordinarily safe air travel. While this is a remarkable feat, it shouldn’t take a viral video and loose bolts to invite tough questions for airplane manufacturers and the industry as a whole.

    A line of 787 jets are parked Thursday at Boeing's Paine Field in Everett, Wash. Boeing's newest, flashiest jet was grounded worldwide until a fix for its battery problem is found that satisfies the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration. It's not clear how long the investigation — or the fix — will take, but it won't be cheap for Boeing. Boeing currently builds five 787s every month. It hasn't delivered any since Jan. 3, before the first battery fire.

    The recent news of a door plug on Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 blowing out after takeoff is alarming for all who fly. The resulting inspections of the Boeing 737 Max 9 fleet, which turned up loose bolts and similar issues in these planes, begs grave questions: How did this happen? Why didn’t we know about this? Why did it take a near disaster for these flaws to come to light?

    This stunning problem also suggests that the safety we have enjoyed in commercial air travel has come in spite of decades of a Federal Aviation Administration that is, by its own admission, understaffed, underfunded and drained of expertise across the agency. In truth, it is clear now that we have not been very safe; instead, we have been very lucky. The only recent consequence of these problems domestically until now is a series of near misses on runways.

    These safety and regulatory problems go far deeper than air traffic control; they have significant effects on airplane manufacturing. As a whistleblower in 2019 reported, significant issues at the factories that manufacture Boeing planes led him to seriously question the safety of the aircraft going to fly, but no action was taken on his concerns, and FAA regulators routinely sided with industry.

    The unfortunate truth is that in its recent history of abdicating much of the expertise in safety to the airplane manufacturers and third parties, the FAA effectively operates as an agency that is captive to some of the largest aviation companies. Without an empowered regulator to step in and preemptively ensure planes are safe, these airlines are only accountable for their safety in that accidents do not affect their bottom line.

    In my own practice, I know that the fear of shareholder reprisal does not meaningfully save lives before calamity strikes — but it does lead companies to cut corners and push safety to its limit in the name of profit. In the absence of a regulator, we need more people to come forward to tell their stories. We need whistleblowers who are willing to speak up and start answering our critical questions.

    The CEO of Boeing, Dave Calhoun, recently wrote in a memo to employees that “when serious accidents like this occur, it is critical for us to work transparently with our customers and regulators to understand and address the causes of the event, and to ensure they don’t happen again.”

    Indeed, this is the “happen again” portion of Boeing’s safety issues with the 737 Max line. We have witnessed the result of this long-standing lack of factory oversight in the airline industry before. The crashes of Indonesian Lion Air Flight 610 in 2018 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 in 2019, both Boeing 737 Max 8 planes, together killed 346 people and led to significant international litigation against the company. A whistleblower, in the right place at the right time, may very well have prevented the technical problems with the stabilizing feature that led to these crashes.

    While these safety failures back then and now in 2024 should never have progressed to this point, this is a key moment for whistleblowers to be heard. There are real questions about the critical safety issues that have flown under the radar for too long, and somebody, at an aircraft manufacturer, at a federal agency, knows the true story of how we arrived here and what needs to change.

    Whistleblowers should also know that the law protects them — including the FAA Voluntary Safety Reporting Program — to ensure employees can safely speak up.

    I urge anyone who may be able to shed light on these critical safety issues to blow the whistle. Doing so may just save lives, and in the absence of meaningful regulatory action from the FAA, our safety requires that brave people come forward and tell us what they know.

    Debra Katz is a whistleblower and civil rights attorney and a founding partner of Katz Banks Kumin LLP.

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