In September 2009, Boeing hired John Woods as a Manufacturing Engineer at its 787 “Dreamliner” factory in Charleston, South Carolina.
Just over a year later, Boeing fired him. The company said he was working too slowly.
Woods said he was fired for raising safety concerns. He filed a whistleblower complaint with the US aviation safety regulator, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), alleging seven serious violations. The FAA substantiated only one of the seven: that Boeing used “inadequate manufacturing planning documents that lacked revision control and were missing inspection steps”.
Woods also appealed to Boeing’s Ethics Department, claiming he was being harassed. After 91 days, Boeing rejected his complaint. The Labor Court upheld the company.
A worker has 90 days from the point at which they believe they have been retaliated against to make a complaint with the Department of Labor. For Woods, because he had waited for Boeing’s Ethics Department, he could not turn to the Department of Labor.
At the time he was hired, Woods had declared to Boeing that he had psychiatric conditions: Attention Deficit Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and mild depression.
The words below are taken from an interview recorded with Mr Woods in 2014.
Working for Boeing
I was very proud to be working at Boeing, the biggest and best commercial aircraft manufacturer in the world and to have the opportunity to work on the first all-composite fuselage for a commercial aircraft. I drank the Boeing Kool-Aid. I was thrilled to be there. Every time the store came around, I bought all my souvenirs.
I was hired to focus on repair of the carbon epoxy material whenever it’s damaged or whenever there’s a manufacturing defect. If there’s damage, we have to remove the material and replace the material to the point where it’s at least as strong as its original design. I was the first manufacturing engineer that was to be dedicated to that position.
I would write the work instructions for the technicians on the floor to how to do the repair.
Quality and production
There was some animosity between quality and production. I would bring up a quality concern and they would say, well, that’s not helpful to production.
In a couple of meetings, there were several ... managers screaming at me to dumb down my work instruction.
On several occasions, I would go check out these repairs while they were being done and after. There are inspection points all throughout the repair process where an inspector is supposed to come over and check something and mark it down that he checked it.
You’re never supposed to go past an operation that’s not checked off. I would see a defect and I’ll look at the inspection sheet and there was no note of it, and I know in the specifications that all anomalies, even small anomalies, are supposed to be recorded in the inspection.
So I would bring an inspector over and show it to him and say, “Could you please note this down in your inspection?” And they say okay, so I’d walk away. Then I’d come back later that day or the next day and it’s still not noted.
So then I would go mention it to the supervisor and go back another couple of days and still not noted. It became very frustrating on several occasions, to the point where people were angry at me for bringing it up.
In a couple of meetings, there were several, a group of managers screaming at me to dumb down my work instruction.
And then when it hit the floor, there was pushback because they don’t want to do all this extra work, so then they come back to me and ask me to – that I put too much in there and I need to dumb it down.
The requirements that I had in there were supposed to be in there. The specifications tell you what the requirements are and you have to tell the technicians what the requirements are.
You have to identify what are the key requirements that are significant enough to put in your work instructions, and sometimes the spec will say that you may do something or you shall do something or you must do something, so just things like that go into your judgment on whether or not – how important it is.
Given what I’ve seen, working at the South Carolina plant, doing structural repairs for the Boeing 787, I definitely would be concerned about flying on it myself. I don’t feel safe flying on the 787.
There’s no doubt there are bad repairs going out the door on the 787 aircraft.
I am worried that sooner or later, there’s going to be a structural failure on the fuselage.
These are structural parts, and this is a jumbo jet carrying a couple of hundred human beings, and the structural fuselage has to be solid. The nature of composite materials is the damage grows, and then eventually you get failure. In my view, sooner or later, there will be a fuselage event on the 787 I’m guessing within a couple of years, but that’s just a guess.
I’m concerned about flying on that aircraft. When you know how many times it’s been repaired before it’s even delivered to the customer, you don’t realise that you’re buying damaged. Your aircraft has been damaged and repaired already when you think it’s new.
I had written a repair work instruction for repairing the stringers. They started using it, and then they realised it’s got these new requirements.
They’re telling me I wrote too good of a procedure, so to speak, that’s got too much requirements in it that doesn’t all need to be in there. And they got very upset, even standing up by their chairs and yelling at me.They were furious because they had expected me to take the stuff out already.
A week later, I was terminated.
The subject matter of the [FAA] complaint was my own area. And when it came back from the FAA with only substantiating one of my seven points, I was very surprised because I know I could’ve myself substantiated all of them, but it’ll be easy for me because that was my subject matter. But I certainly expected a lot more than one to be substantiated. In fact, one is kind of a joke.
My reasons for speaking out about the quality problems on the 787 are because I’m truly concerned about the manufacturing quality of this first-of-a-kind composite aircraft.
Boeing did not have adequate quality controls in place when it comes to repairing structural composites. I wasn’t going to let that continue on my watch.
They encourage you to speak out, and where did it get me? It got me fired.
So instead of saying thanks for doing a good job, because I thought I was doing what I was supposed to be doing, I had to leave in shame really. I was embarrassed with my own family.
Six weeks since I’ve been terminated, and then here I am unemployed with termination on my record. And I have to try to find someone to hire me after being fired from Boeing and it’s very hard to do. It took me a year-and-a-half.
It shouldn’t be this hard to do the right thing.
Boeing told Al Jazeera: “We are confident that there is no merit to this more than two-year-old original lawsuit and many subsequent allegations and legal appeals by Mr. Woods. This has also been apparent from multiple judicial decisions in which federal courts and federal agencies have found no merit to Mr. Woods’ litany of complaints and allegations. Boeing takes its obligations under the labor laws seriously, and we respect employee rights and comply with all labor laws. We will not comment further about specifics in any current or future litigation.”