The Federal Aviation Administration has temporarily grounded scores of Boeing 737 MAX 9 jetliners after a fuselage door plug blew off an Alaska Airlines plane midflight near Portland, Oregon, on Friday. The incident forced the plane to make an emergency landing. The National Transportation Safety Board has revealed Alaska Airlines had concerns about the plane prior to the incident but kept flying it. It’s just the latest safety issue plaguing Boeing’s MAX planes, which had two catastrophic crashes in 2018 and 2019 that killed 346 people when faulty flight control systems put the planes into nosedives. “This is a tip of the iceberg type situation,” says aviation expert Ed Pierson, a former senior manager at Boeing who says he left the company over its “unacceptable” business practices that prioritize production over safety. We also speak with Nadia Milleron, whose daughter Samya Rose Stumo was among those killed in the 2019 crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302. “There are serious, serious problems with these MAX planes,” says Milleron. “A lot of them are manufacturing problems, and Boeing is trying to evade safety regulations.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
We end today’s show looking at how hundreds of Boeing 737 MAX 9 flights have been grounded or canceled after a refrigerator-sized fuselage door plug blew off an Alaska Airlines plane above Portland, Oregon, Friday. The incident, which occurred at 16,000 feet, forced the plane to make an emergency landing there. The National Transportation Safety Board has revealed Alaska Airlines had concerns about the plane prior to the incident but kept flying it. During three recent flights, the plane’s auto-pressurization fail light had illuminated. In response, Alaska Airlines had restricted the plane from flying over water to increase the chances the pilots could, quote, “return very quickly to an airport.”
In 2019, all Boeing 737 MAX 8 jets were grounded after 346 people died in crashes in Ethiopia and Indonesia. All people on board both flights died. After those accidents, the Department of Justice charged Boeing with felony fraud. In February, a federal judge in Texas denied a request by families of those killed in the two crashes to throw out or adjust a settlement in the case.
For more on that case and this new incident, we’re joined by two guests. In Seattle, Ed Pierson is with us, executive director of the Foundation for Aviation Safety, former Boeing senior manager. Also with us, Nadia Milleron. She became an aviation safety advocate after her daughter, Samya Rose Stumo, was killed along with 156 others in the 2019 Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, which was a Boeing 737 MAX.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Ed Pierson, let’s begin with you. Analyze what you think happened here and what needs to be done. At this point, all MAX 9s, apparently, are either canceled or grounded for further inspection.
ED PIERSON: Good morning. Thank you for inviting me.
Yes, I think that right now, obviously, there’s an investigation that’s being conducted, and we still don’t know a whole lot, but it certainly seems to be leaning more toward a manufacturing type of a problem. And as far as what needs to get done, again, as you kind of talked about earlier, this is, unfortunately, a tip-of-the-iceberg-type situation, so there’s been quite a few serious incidents that have occurred that the public is generally unaware of.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about your warnings as a former senior manager at the Boeing 737 factory in Renton, Washington. We’re speaking to you in Seattle. You pushed Boeing leadership to shut down production operations before both crashes in 2019.
ED PIERSON: Right. This has, unfortunately, been a long-standing issue. It’s not a new thing, as you point out. The incidents — excuse me, the accidents that occurred in 2018 to 2019, as you mentioned, we had a lot of problems in the factory. Everything was being rushed. We had a shortage of skilled employees. We were having all kinds of issues with quality problems. There was just incredible schedule pressure. There’s a saying in the factory: They call it “schedule is king.” And as we were going through those types of issues, myself and others verbalized our concerns, and we did our best to try to stop the production system at that point. And unfortunately, we were, sadly, unable to do that.
What I’ve been told from employees that currently work at that location is that despite the two crashes that killed 346 people, and despite the $20 billion loss to the company and criminal behavior and all that, the situation is as bad or worse than it was when I was there, which is very hard to believe. So, right now I would say that it seems like the FAA is certainly not doing their job. They’re continuing to fall down on the job. And, you know, they’re solely responsible for making sure that the Boeing Company complies with all the regulations. And so, it is very concerning.
I would tell you that this incident with Alaska, I’m sure, is shocking to passengers, but for those of us who have been watching this for a while, it’s really not a surprise at all. You know, we’ve seen, ever since the MAX has been put back in service, over 20 serious production quality defects that have surfaced. And we’re not talking tray tables. We’re talking about flight-related systems. And the public is unaware of this. These are reports that go through in the FAA database, and it’s not something that the airlines want to talk about. It’s certainly not something Boeing or the FAA want to talk about. And so that’s a real problem.
The other thing we’re seeing is that there’s lots of requests for engineering exemptions, which is really shocking when you think that, after all that, why are we having the Boeing Company right now ask for delays for engineering exemptions? Basically, there’s at least, you know, three or four just in the last couple months, where the company has made requests for — petitioned for exemptions from legally required engineering design standards. And these are involving flight control-related systems — stall management, yaw damper computer, the flap slats, electronic actuator unit, you know, and, just recently, the engine inlet icing. I mean, these are important systems. And why are we, after all this, you know, trying to give them special treatment? That’s not what the FAA should — shouldn’t even consider this.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring Nadia Milleron into the conversation, an aviation safety advocate. You know, just by chance, on Friday, we spoke to your uncle, Nadia. We spoke to Ralph Nader, and I asked him about your daughter, about Samya and her death in 2019, along with, what, 156 others over Ethiopia. She was a public health advocate. This is Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, which was a Boeing 737 MAX, in that case a MAX 8, this a MAX 9. What was your response when you heard about what happened on Friday? I mean, it’s astounding. This area the size of a door, the size of a refrigerator, the side just blew out. And it’s only by chance that this almost full flight did not have people sitting right there. The seats were ripped from the — from what took place, that whole wall going out. Now a Portland teacher has found that in their backyard. Talk about your response.
NADIA MILLERON: First, I was so grateful, and all the families were so grateful, that no one died. So, this is a huge wake-up call for the American people. We have been trying, Ed Pierson and Joe Jacobsen — Joe Jacobsen used to work for the FAA — have been trying to highlight all of these pilot reports that have been happening over the last two years. There are serious, serious problems with these MAX planes, and they have caused near accidents on repeated occasions. And we try to get the press to cover this so that the American people and all passengers around the world can choose whether or not to get on this flight. You know, my daughter had no idea. We had no idea that this was a dangerous plane, even though there had been a crash in Indonesia before, but it had been downplayed and said that it was the pilots’ fault, and badly trained pilots, which in the end was not true. And we couldn’t choose. She couldn’t choose whether or not to get on the plane. So, now passengers should have the information that these planes have repeated problems. A lot of them are manufacturing problems.
And Boeing is trying to evade safety regulations. Last year, in December of 2022 — 2022 — they went to Congress, because the FAA wouldn’t — all the safety regulations are written in blood. All of them have been — are there because people have died. So, the regulation is in response to the death and trying to prevent more deaths. So, Boeing went to Congress and, through the military authorization act, they got another exemption for themselves. So, going to Congress to get exemptions for safety? I mean, the only thing that can be done, I think, is that the passenger has to be able to choose.
And yesterday was the deadline for the agreement. So, Boeing has criminal charges against them from the DOJ. The DOJ and Boeing made an agreement, that is an illegal agreement because they didn’t consult the victims. So, in the United States, we have the Crime Victims’ Rights Act. And when there is any kind of negotiations or procedure going on in a criminal case, the prosecutor has to contact the victims. And we reached out to the DOJ and said, “We’re victims.” And they said, “No, no, there’s nothing going on. There’s nothing going on.” And then, in the Trump administration, the day after the attack in the Capitol, which was January 6th, the day after, when all the press focus was not on Boeing, they made a deal, which was a deferred prosecution agreement, where Boeing had to behave well, not risk anyone’s life, not defraud anyone, not lie to anyone for three years, and then they would apply to the court, the judge, for a dismissal of these charges.
Well, this is a very clear example of how they have not been behaving, how they do risk people’s lives. And we have this murderer out there in the world that has already killed 346 people and has not changed their behavior. And the only way they are going to change their behavior, in my view, is if there’s accountability and if the judge does not let — sign the agreement and say, “Yes, we’re going to dismiss the charges.” We need to have a trial. We need to have accountability on the part of the responsible executives. And also, they need to feel it in their pocketbook. People shouldn’t fly the MAX. And you really shouldn’t fly the MAX just for your own safety.
AMY GOODMAN: Ed Pierson, can you talk about why you quit Boeing?
ED PIERSON: You know, well, first, I just want to say that everything that Nadia said, I 100% agree with. And there’s so much here to unravel. And we really need accountability, because that is going to drive the future changes that we need.
So, why I quit is, honestly, some of the same things we’re seeing today. In fact, it’s even worse than you probably know. Boeing removed production quality inspections, and they removed large numbers of them. Thousands of them, they actually removed. And we have evidence and information that indicates that this was done without the FAA’s knowledge. And I’m including the MAX airplanes. So, it’s not just the 737 MAX airplanes. This is also for the other airplanes at Boeing, like the 777, the 767, the 87. I mean, it’s astonishing if you think about it. There’s been removal of the quality control inspections. There was some internal whistleblowers that reported this. And the FAA substantiated it. Now, this is after two fatal crashes of 346 people. I mean, it’s just — it’s insanity. And so, it’s all being done. And, of course, you know, what you’ll hear from Boeing and you’ll hear from the FAA is the airplane has flown millions of miles safely. Well, that’s not actually correct, obviously. And I would also add that, you know, that type of data is — metrics provides zero insight into the quality of individual airplanes and has never prevented a crash. So, those statistics are worn-out, old statistics that don’t really mean anything.
And why I quit is because I believe that the Boeing Company can be a much better company than it is. It’s historically, as you know, been an incredible company. I know there are some incredible people. But the leadership is horrible. And the pressure to produce and put airplanes out and, you know, take chances like this with people’s lives, it’s unacceptable.
And so, you know, the FAA — and also, I want to make a very clear point. The Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, we’ve written to him on several occasions, haven’t even received a response. And he oversees the FAA. And so, we are very concerned. I’ve talked with pilots and mechanics and other people, and it’s just very concerning, the whole picture. I didn’t want to quit Boeing. I didn’t actually quit; I actually retired early. But I just couldn’t continue to work for a company that did that and put that kind of pressure on employees to produce. And it’s not healthy, and it’s not good for the passengers, anybody.
AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you — we just have a few seconds, but the CEO of Boeing, Calhoun, has called for a critical safety meeting, scheduled for January 9th at the company’s Renton, Washington, factory, stressing the need for transparency and collaboration with customers and regulators in understanding what happened. Do you have faith in this, Ed Pierson?
ED PIERSON: Well, look, he should be in the factory a heck of a lot more than he is now. He barely comes to the factory. He acts like he is on the factory floor all the time. That’s not accurate. That’s not accurate. He needs to get out of his corporate headquarters and go out and meet with the people that are building these planes.
AMY GOODMAN: We have to leave it there, but we will continue to follow —
ED PIERSON: OK.
AMY GOODMAN: — this case. Ed Pierson with the Foundation for Aviation Safety and Nadia Milleron, aviation safety advocate, lost her daughter in a MAX plane. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.