In the wake of two deadly Boeing 737 MAX crashes, concerns have been raised by airlines and regulators about the Boeing 787 Dreamliner.
Safety lapses at the Boeing North Charleston, South Carolina plant have drawn the scrutiny of airlines and regulators. Qatar Airways stopped accepting planes from the factory after manufacturing mishaps damaged jets and delayed deliveries. Workers have filed claims and safety complaints with federal regulators, describing issues such as defective manufacturing, debris left on planes and pressure to not report violations. Others have sued Boeing, saying they were retaliated against for flagging manufacturing mistakes.
“Joseph Clayton, a technician at the North Charleston plant, one of two facilities where the Dreamliner is built, said he routinely found debris dangerously close to wiring beneath cockpits. “I’ve told my wife that I never plan to fly on it,” he said. “It’s just a safety issue.””(New York Times)
All factories deal with manufacturing errors, and there is no evidence that the problems in South Carolina have led to any major safety incidents. However, it has been reported that workers have made dangerous mistakes on the production line in the past.
Faulty parts have been installed in planes. Tools and metal shavings have routinely been left inside jets, often near electrical systems. Aircraft have taken test flights with debris in an engine and a tail, risking failure.
John Barnett, a former quality assurance manager who worked at Boeing for 30 years, discovered clusters of metal slivers hanging over the wiring that commands the flight controls. If the sharp metal pieces — produced when fasteners were fitted into nuts — penetrate the wires, he said, it could be “catastrophic.” Officials believe the shavings may have damaged an in-service airplane on one occasion in 2012.
““As a quality manager at Boeing, you’re the last line of defense before a defect makes it out to the flying public,” Mr. Barnett said. “And I haven’t seen a plane out of Charleston yet that I’d put my name on saying it’s safe and airworthy.””(New York Times)
Foreign object debris is a common issue in aviation. Workers are supposed to clean the aircraft as they work, often with a vacuum, so they don’t contaminate the planes with shavings, tools, parts or other items.
The issue has cost Boeing at other plants. In March, the Air Force halted deliveries of the KC-46 tanker, built in Everett, Wash., after finding a wrench, bolts and trash inside new planes.
““I’ve found tubes of sealant, nuts, stuff from the build process,” said Rich Mester, a former technician who reviewed planes before delivery. Mr. Mester was fired, and a claim was filed on his behalf with the National Labor Relations Board over his termination. “They’re supposed to have been inspected for this stuff, and it still makes it out to us.”“(New York Times)
Employees have found a ladder and a string of lights left inside the tails of planes, near the gears of the horizontal stabilizer. “It could have locked up the gears,” Mr. Mester said.
Dan Ormson, who worked for American Airlines, regularly found debris while inspecting Dreamliners in North Charleston. He discovered loose objects touching electrical wiring and rags near the landing gear. He often collected bits and pieces in zip-lock bags to show one of the plant’s top executives.
When it was unveiled in 2007, the 787 Dreamliner was Boeing’s most important new plane in a generation. The jet, with a lightweight carbon fiber fuselage and advanced technology, was a hit with carriers craving fuel savings. Airlines ordered hundreds of the planes, which cost upward of $200 million each. Spurred by high demand, Boeing set up a new factory. North Charleston was ideal in many ways. South Carolina has the lowest percentage of union representation in the nation, giving Boeing a potentially less expensive work force.
While Boeing has generations of aerospace professionals in the Seattle area, there was no comparable work force in South Carolina. Instead, managers had to recruit from technical colleges in Tulsa, Okla., and Atlanta. Managers were also urged to not hire unionized employees from the Boeing factory in Everett.
“We struggled with that,” said Mr. Kitson, a former quality manager, who retired in 2015. “There wasn’t the qualified labor pool locally.” Another former manager, Michael Storey, confirmed his account.
In the 787 plant, time crunches had consequences. Hundreds of tools began disappearing, according to complaints filed in 2014 with the F.A.A. by two former managers, Jennifer Jacobsen and David McClaughlin. Some were “found lying around the aircraft,” Ms. Jacobsen said in her complaint. The two managers also said they had been pushed to cover up delays. Managers told workers to install equipment out of order to make it “appear to Boeing executives in Chicago, the aircraft purchasers and Boeing’s shareholders that the work is being performed on schedule, where in fact the aircraft is far behind schedule,” according to their complaints.
“The F.A.A. investigated the complaints and didn’t find violations on its visit to the plant in early 2014. But the agency said it had previously found “improper tool control” and the “presence of foreign object debris.””(New York Times)
Aircraft were also damaged during manufacturing. A Dreamliner built for American Airlines suffered a flood in the cabin so severe that seats, ceiling panels, carpeting and electronics had to be replaced over the course of several weeks.
“While inspecting a plane being prepared for delivery, Mr. Clayton, the technician currently at the plant, recently found chewing gum holding together part of a door’s trim. “It was not a safety issue, but it’s not what you want to present to a customer,” he said.“(New York Times)
In 2014, factory employees were told to watch a video from the chief executive of Qatar Airways. He said he was upset that Boeing wasn’t being transparent about the length or cause of delays. In several instances, workers had damaged the exterior of planes made for the airline, requiring Boeing to push back delivery to fix the jets. Ever since, Qatar has bought only Dreamliners built in Everett.
In the interest of meeting deadlines, managers sometimes played down or ignored problems, according to current and former workers. In 2016 a senior manager had pulled a dented hydraulic tube from a scrap bin. The tube, part of the central system controlling the plane’s movement, was installed on a Dreamliner.
Mr. Barnett also reported to management that defective parts had gone missing, raising the prospect that they had been installed in planes. His bosses, he said, told him to finish the paperwork on the missing parts without figuring out where they had gone.
Several former employees said high-level managers pushed internal quality inspectors to stop recording defects. Cynthia Kitchens, a former quality manager, said her superiors punished her in performance reviews and berated her on the factory floor after she flagged wire bundles rife with metal shavings and defective metal parts that had been installed on planes. “It was intimidation,” she said. “Every time I started finding stuff, I was harassed.” Ms. Kitchens left in 2016 and sued Boeing for age and sex discrimination.
Some employees said they had been punished or fired when they voiced concerns.
Mr. Barnett was reprimanded in 2014 for documenting errors. In a performance review seen by The Times, a senior manager downgraded him for “using email to express process violations,” instead of engaging “F2F,” or face to face. He took that to mean he shouldn’t put problems in writing. The manager said Mr. Barnett needed to get better at “working in the gray areas and help find a way while maintaining compliance.”
Liam Wallis, a former quality manager, said in a wrongful-termination lawsuit that Boeing had fired him after he discovered that planes were being manufactured using obsolete engineering specifications. Mr. Wallis also said in the suit, filed in March, that an employee who didn’t exist had signed off on the repairs of an aircraft. His boss had criticized him in the past for writing up violations, according to the lawsuit and emails reviewed by The Times. Boeing said it had fired Mr. Wallis for falsifying documents
What I think about this
I think that with the hot water Boeing currently is in, they need to clean up their act before airlines and passengers decide enough is enough. The worker intimidation and faulty parts installation is especially worrying. The sad part is that many 787 Dreamliner aircraft are in the air today, and with these safety concerns, it is possible that entire fleets of aircraft could be grounded at a moments notice. I have been on a 787 multiple times myself and think it is a great aircraft. However, it is especially worrying that some of the workers that built and designed the aircraft wouldn’t fly on the 787 themselves.