Claims of shoddy production draw scrutiny to 2nd Boeing jet

- Natalie Kitroeff, David Gelles, NORTH CHARLESTON

Apr 22, 2019-

When Boeing broke ground on its new factory near Charleston in 2009, the plant was trumpeted as a state-of-the-art manufacturing hub, building one of the most advanced aircraft in the world. But in the decade since, the factory, which makes the 787 Dreamliner, has been plagued by shoddy production and weak oversight that have threatened to compromise safety.

A New York Times review of hundreds of pages of internal emails, corporate documents and federal records, as well as interviews with more than a dozen current and former employees, reveals a culture that often valued production speed over quality. Facing long manufacturing delays, Boeing pushed its work force to quickly turn out Dreamliners, at times ignoring issues raised by employees.

Complaints about the frenzied pace echo broader concerns about the company in the wake of two deadly crashes involving another jet, the 737 Max. Boeing is now facing questions about whether the race to get the Max done, and catch up to its rival Airbus, led it to miss safety risks in the design, like an anti-stall system that played a role in both crashes.

Safety lapses at the North Charleston 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 nearly a dozen whistle-blower claims and safety complaints with federal regulators, describing issues like 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.”

In an industry where safety is paramount, the collective concerns involving two crucial Boeing planes—the company’s workhorse, the 737 Max, and another crown jewel, the 787 Dreamliner—point to potentially systemic problems. Regulators and lawmakers are taking a deeper look at Boeing’s priorities, and whether profits sometimes trumped safety. The leadership of Boeing, one of the country’s largest exporters, now finds itself in the unfamiliar position of having to defend its practices and motivations.

“Boeing South Carolina teammates are producing the highest levels of quality in our history,” Kevin McAllister, Boeing’s head of commercial airplanes, said in a statement. “I am proud of our teams’ exceptional commitment to quality and stand behind the work they do each and every day.”

All factories deal with manufacturing errors, and there is no evidence that the problems in South Carolina have led to any major safety incidents. The Dreamliner has never crashed, although the fleet was briefly grounded after a battery fire. Airlines, too, have confidence in the Dreamliner. But workers sometimes made dangerous mistakes, according to the current and former Boeing employees, some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because they feared retaliation.

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.

On several planes, John Barnett, a former quality manager who worked at Boeing for nearly three decades and retired in 2017, 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.”

Barnett, who filed a whistle-blower complaint with regulators, said he had repeatedly urged his bosses to remove the shavings. But they refused and moved him to another part of the plant.

A spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration, Lynn Lunsford, said the agency had inspected several planes certified by Boeing as free of such debris and found those same metal slivers. In certain circumstances, he said, the problem can lead to electrical shorts and cause fires.

Officials believe the shavings may have damaged an in-service airplane on one occasion in 2012, according to two people with knowledge of the matter.

The F.A.A. issued a directive in 2017 requiring that Dreamliners be cleared of shavings before they are delivered. Boeing said it was complying and was working with the supplier to improve the design of the nut. But it has determined that the issue does not present a flight safety issue.

“As a quality manager at Boeing, you’re the last line of defence before a defect makes it out to the flying public,” 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.”

— © 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES

Published: 22-04-2019 10:14

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