Over the weekend, the New York Times published report: Claims of Shoddy Production Draw Scrutiny to a Second Boeing Jet, (Paid subscription or metered view) may well add additional challenges to Boeing’s ongoing crisis of aircraft program management.

This investigative report focuses on Boeing’s North Charleston, South Carolina, 787 Dreamliner production facilities and paints a concerning picture regarding aircraft production and quality control processes.  Boeing 787 Production Line

The Times report cite reviews of “hundreds of pages of internal emails, corporate documents and federal records,” along with interviews of upwards of a dozen current and former Boeing employees. The report theme: “reveals a culture that often-valued production speed over quality.” The report notes that some employees have filed whistleblower complaints with air safety regulators out of concern for aircraft safety.

The cited interviews with current and former employees that spoke to the Times on conditions of anonymity, fearing retaliation point to:

  • Faulty parts being installed on aircraft.
  • Tools and metal shavings routinely left inside completed aircraft with some quality managers alleging mangers instructed them to stop recording defects.
  • Quality managers indicating that factory senior management either refused to acknowledge production issues, or “a losing battle with debris” remaining on completed aircraft, including metal shavings or tools located close to critical aircraft component systems.
  • In the interest of meeting increasing milestones of monthly production volumes, managers had sometimes played down or ignored process problems.

The report notes that inspectors from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration had inspected several aircraft certified by Boeing to be defect free and found metal slivers in aircraft areas. The FAA issued a directive in 2017 requiring that 787 completed aircraft be cleared of shavings before customer delivery.

In March of this year, the United States Air Force halted deliveries of brand new KC-46 air tankers produced at the Everett Washington facility after discovering a wrench, bolts and general trash inside these new military aircraft. Boeing responded that it would work to correct the problem and new tanker deliveries to the USAF have since reportedly resumed.

Reportedly, in 2014, the CEO of airline customer Qatar Airways recorded a video that chastised North Charleston workers for quality of manufacturing and assembly practices. The airline has since specified that all of its new 787 Dreamliners be manufactured at the Everett Washington facility.

The report goes on to indicate that less than a month after the crash of the separate second 737 MAX aircraft, Boeing had called an urgent meeting of North Charleston plant employees to indicate that there was a problem that airline customers were finding these random objects in new 787 aircraft. “A senior manager implored workers to check more carefully, invoking the crashes.” The executive head of the 787 program reminded workers that stray objects left inside planes “can potentially have serious safety consequences when left unchecked.

For its part, a Boeing spokesperson indicated to the Times: “We prioritize safety and quality over speed, but all three can be accomplished while still producing one of the safest airplanes flying today.

Theme of Non-Union vs. Unionized Workforces

Boeing currently has two production facilities dedicated to 787 Dreamliner production- one is Everett Washington, which has a unionized workforce, the other being the North Charleston, South Carolina facility which has a non-union workforce. The South Carolina facility was an initial flashpoint for Boeing’s unionized production workers, fearing that more work would be routed to that facility.

The Times report indicates that has been challenges in recruiting a qualified labor pool of workers at the latter facility, whose workforce is compensated at lower levels than those in the organized Everett facility. Two former employees indicated to Times reporters that Charleston managers were restricted from hiring unionized workers from the Everett facility.

Supply Chain Matters Perspective

In early April, the CEO of Boeing, Dennis A. Muilenburg, asked the Boeing Board of Directors to establish a committee to review company-wide policies and processes for the design and development of Boeing airplanes.  According to the announcement: “the committee will confirm the effectiveness of policies and processes for assuring the highest level of safety on the 737-MAX program, as well as our other airplane programs, and recommend improvements to policies and procedures.

From our Supply Chain Matters lens, and in light of the New York Times report, our belief is that this Board Committee should take a wider perspective to include the production and quality processes involving all Boeing aircraft. To sweep this report aside as one related to disgruntled employees or organized vs. non-union workforce advocates seems unwise.

There is evidence of flawed production, quality or process control processes, especially when airline customers detect visible evidence. More importantly, what the 737 MAX crisis is driving home is that safety should never be compromised, and Boeing is now under a global-wide looking glass to ascertain how committed the company’s actions will be, moving-forward.

In the midst of crisis, actions indeed speak louder than words. Boeing should acknowledge the Times report as another reference for the Board level committee to scrutinize all production processes, customer and employee observations.

Bob Ferrari

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