Whistleblower speaks out on quality issues at Boeing supplier: "It was just a matter of time before something bad happened" (2024)

CBS Evening News Exclusive

By Kris Van Cleave, Michael Kaplan, Sheena Samu

/ CBS News

Spirit AeroSystems whistleblower speaks out

A former quality manager who blew the whistle on Spirit AeroSystems, a troubled Boeing supplier that builds the bulk of the 737 Max, says he was pressured to downplay problems he found while inspecting the plane's fuselages.

For about a decade, Santiago Paredes worked at the end of the production line at the Spirit AeroSystems factory in Wichita, Kansas, doing final inspections on 737 fuselages before they were shipped to Boeing.

"If quality mattered, I would still be at Spirit," said Paredes, who told CBS News in an interview he was finding hundreds of defects every day. "It was very rare for us to look at a job and not find any defects."

Speaking publicly for the first time, Paredes told CBS News he often found problems while inspecting the area around the same aircraft door panel that flew off in the middle of an Alaska Airlines flight in January.

"Why'd that happen? Because Spirit let go of a defect that they overlooked because of the pressure that they put on the inspectors," Paredes told CBS News. "If the culture was good, those issues would be addressed, but the culture is not good."

The National Transportation Safety Board Investigation indicates that the Alaska Airlines door panel was removed during final assembly to allow a Spirit AeroSystems team to make defect repairs, but it appears the bolts holding the panel in place were not reinstalled.

Spirit AeroSystems, not affiliated with Spirit Airlines, was spun off from Boeing nearly 20 years ago. The company has been under scrutiny since the Federal Aviation Administration imposed quality checks and halted production expansion of the 737 Max following the January Alaska Airlines accident.

Paredes, who left the company in mid-2022, told CBS News that what he saw firsthand makes him hesitant to fly on those planes.

"Working at Spirit, I almost grew a fear of flying," said Paredes. "Knowing what I know about the 737, it makes me very uncomfortable when I fly on one of them."

Whistleblower speaks out on quality issues at Boeing supplier: "It was just a matter of time before something bad happened" (2)

"We encourage all Spirit employees with concerns to come forward, safe in knowing they will be protected," said Spirit spokesman Joe Buccino. "We remain committed to addressing concerns and continuously improving workplace safety standards."

CBS News spoke with several current and former Spirit AeroSystems employees and reviewed photos of dented fuselages, missing fasteners and even a wrench they say was left behind in a supposedly ready-to-deliver component. Paredes said Boeing knew for years Spirit was delivering defective fuselages.

"It's a recipe for disaster," Paredes told us. "I said it was just a matter of time before something bad happened. "

A Boeing spokesperson told CBS News the company has long had a team that finds and fixes defects in fuselages built by Spirit AeroSystems as Boeing assembled the planes. The spokesperson said since the beginning of March, Boeing engineers have been inspecting each Spirit fuselage as it rolls off the production line in Wichita.

Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun said in a recent interview with CNBC the increased oversight in Kansas has reduced the number of fuselages with defects, or what Boeing calls 'nonconformities," arriving at the 737 assembly plant in Washington State by about 80%. The company is currently weighing buying back Spirit AeroSystems to further improve quality. Boeing spun off Spirit, formerly known as Boeing Wichita, in 2005.

Boeing maintains the 737 is a safe airplane.

During its earning call this week, Spirit CEO Patrick Shanahan noted an improvement in quality from the newly implemented inspection protocols noting a 15% improvement in quality during the first quarter.

"I think we've made substantial improvement in realigning all the inspections, interpreting the engineering specifications in an exacting manner so that the eyes of Boeing and the eyes of Spirit are the same," Shanahan said.

Shanahan became CEO in October of 2023 following Boeing's discovery of mis-drilled holes on many 737 Max fuselages received from Spirit that had to be repaired by Boeing.

The "Showstopper"

According to Paredes, managers at Spirit AeroSystems would pressure him to keep his reports of defects to a minimum. He says his bosses referred to him by the nickname "Showstopper," because the defects he would write up as needing to be repaired would delay deliveries. Eventually, Paredes says, the pressure got worse beginning in 2018 as Spirit went from producing fuselages in the mid-30s monthly, to more than 50 a month.

"They always said they didn't have time to fix the mistakes," said Paredes. "They needed to get the planes out."

In February 2022, Paredes said Spirit bosses asked him to speed up his inspections by being less specific about where exactly he was finding issues with fuselages. Paredes emailed his managers, writing the request was "unethical" and put him "in a very uncomfortable situation."

"I was put in a place where I had, if I say, no, I was gonna get fired," Paredes recalled. "If I say yes, I was admitting that I was gonna do something wrong."

After sending that email, Paredes was stripped from his team leadership position. He filed an ethics complaint with the company's Human Resources department, and says he was eventually reinstated after the company found he was wrongfully demoted. But Paredes said he'd had enough and resigned from Spirit in the summer of 2022.

"It takes a toll on you and I was tired of fighting," said Paredes. "I was tired of trying to do the right thing."

"Former Employee 1"

Paredes, an Air Force veteran, spent 12 years at Spirit AeroSystems' Wichita plant before leaving in 2022 to work for another Boeing supplier. In a shareholder lawsuit against Spirit, Paredes was cited as "Former Employee 1" alleging "widespread quality failures" at the company — failures that Paredes says their client, Boeing, was aware of.

Buccino, the Spirit spokesman, calls the allegations "unfounded."

The company has asked a judge to dismiss the shareholder lawsuit, arguing, in part, the fact that Paredes was reinstated after it was found he was wrongfully demoted following his ethics complaint is proof the company values quality control.

"Santiago Paredes is one of these brave whistleblowers who chose to come forward and speak publicly. His powerful story points to the need for accountability and responsibility in the aviation industry," his attorneys Brian Knowles and Robert Turkewitz told CBS News. "It is time for profits over safety, quality, and people to come to an end. Actions speak louder than words."

The lawyers say they are working with at least 10 former and current Boeing and Spirit AeroSystems employees who have raised safety concerns.

Paredes is not the only whistleblower to speak out publicly on quality issues relating to Boeing planes.

In March, John "Mitch" Barnett was in the midst of depositions relating to his claims Boeing retaliated against him for complaints about quality lapses when he was found in his car dead from a gunshot wound in Charleston, South Carolina, where Boeing has its 787 manufacturing facility.

Joshua Dean, a former quality auditor at Spirit AeroSystems, was one of the first to allege Spirit leadership had ignored manufacturing defects on the 737 Max. Dean had given a deposition in the same shareholder lawsuit Paredes is listed in, alleging that Spirit "has a culture of not wanting to look for or to find problems, which has led to poor decisions about quality and manufacturing issues."

Dean died last month, after a struggle with a sudden infection.

"In a way I think before, if something happens to me, I'd rather them hear it from me than not hear it at all," Paredes says about going public. "My cry out is not a cry out to get somebody in trouble. My cry out is to highlight the defects that they well known are in their factory, but they need to fix them. So their business can be successful."

–Kathryn Krupnik contributed reporting.

  • Travel
  • Spirit AeroSystems
  • Consumer News
  • Boeing
  • Boeing 737 Max

Kris Van Cleave

Emmy Award-winning journalist Kris Van Cleave is the senior transportation correspondent for CBS News based in Phoenix, Arizona, where he also serves as a national correspondent reporting for all CBS News broadcasts and platforms.

Whistleblower speaks out on quality issues at Boeing supplier: "It was just a matter of time before something bad happened" (2024)
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