Boeing paper trail goes cold over door plug blowout

Safety watchdog bemoans lack of cooperation with probe

Boeing has come in for criticism from the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) over documentation detailing who was responsible for failures in the Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 door plug attachment.

NTSB chair Jennifer Homendy spoke before the Senate Commerce Committee on March 6. Responding to a question from ranking member Senator Ted Cruz regarding cooperation from the parties involved in the incident, Homendy said: "Boeing has not provided us with the documents and information that we have requested numerous times over the past few months. Specifically with respect to opening, closing, and removal of the door and the team that does that work at the Renton facility."

On January 5, a Boeing 737 Max 9 door plug – a replacement for an emergency exit door that was not required on the aircraft – blew out shortly after takeoff, causing decompression. The Boeing jet made an emergency landing, and all passengers and crew were unharmed. According to the NTSB's preliminary report [PDF], seven passengers and one flight attendant received minor injuries.

Investigations have since focused on the door plug and how it was fitted. A preliminary investigation found that the door plug had not been properly bolted into place following work to deal with damaged rivets at the edge of the door frame.

"Wow," said Cruz. "Are you telling us that even two months later, you still do not know who actually opened the door plug?"

"That's correct, Senator," replied Homendy. "We don't know, and it's not for lack of trying." Homendy acknowledged that it can take a while for all the paperwork to be forthcoming. "But for this one, it's two months later."

Homendy told the committee that despite inquiries, the NTSB had not received the names of the 25-member team handling the door plugs. It had also not received all the records regarding the work to deal with the door plug and was having to use email dates and photographs to work out the timeline.

"It's absurd that we don't have that," said Homendy.

Boeing's reputation has suffered in the wake of deadly 737 Max incidents, although the door plug incident was not related to an issue with the aircraft design. It quickly insisted it was working "proactively and transparently" to support the NTSB's investigation.

In an update yesterday, it said: "Early in the investigation, we provided the NTSB with names of Boeing employees, including door specialists, who we believed would have relevant information. We have now provided the full list of individuals on the 737 door team in response to a recent request.

"With respect to documentation, if the door plug removal was undocumented there would be no documentation to share. We will continue to cooperate fully and transparently with the NTSB's investigation."

With quality control under ever-increasing scrutiny, the idea that the removal of the door plug might have gone undocumented is almost unthinkable. We spoke to an aviation industry insider who said that even the suggestion that the removal might have been undocumented was "bizarre."

Homendy addressed the issue of documentation perhaps not existing, saying: "We have been informed that they [Boeing] have a procedure to maintain documents on when work is performed, including when door plugs are opened, closed, or removed. We have not been able to verify that." ®

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