Boeing’s largest plant in ‘panic mode’

10:15 04.06.2024 •

Boeing’s largest factory is in “panic mode”, according to workers and union officials, with managers accused of hounding staff to keep quiet over quality concerns, writes ‘The Guardian’.

The US plane maker has been grappling with a safety crisis sparked by a cabin panel blowout during a flight in January, and intense scrutiny of its production line as regulators launched a string of investigations.

Its site at Everett, Washington – hailed as the world’s biggest manufacturing building – is at the heart of Boeing’s operation, responsible for building planes like the 747 and 767, and fixing the 787 Dreamliner.

One mechanic at the complex, who has worked for Boeing for more than three decades, has claimed it is “full of” faulty 787 jets that need fixing.

Many of these jets are flown from Boeing’s site in South Carolina, where the company shifted final assembly of the 787 in 2021 in what was characterized as a cost-cutting measure.

“There is no way in God’s green earth I would want to be a pilot in South Carolina flying those from South Carolina to here,” the mechanic, who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation, told the Guardian. “Because when they get in here, we’re stripping them apart.”

Managers at Everett “will hound mechanics” to keep quiet about quality-assurance concerns and potential repairs, the mechanic alleged, emphasizing speed and efficiency over safety. He added: “Boeing has to look in the mirror and say: ‘We’re wrong.’”

The company met this week with US regulators to discuss how it plans to address quality-control issues. Executives have recently described how workers have been emboldened to speak up since January, with submissions to an internal portal for safety and quality concerns up 500%.

Earlier this year, a panel of experts, which was appointed by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) after two fatal Boeing 737 Max crashes in 2018 and 2019 that killed 346 people, described a “disconnect” between Boeing’s leadership and workforce on safety, and made 53 recommendations to help resolve its concerns.

After January’s blowout, which took place on board a brand-new Max 9 plane, the FAA launched a sweeping investigation. After a six-week audit of Boeing’s production line found multiple failures to comply with manufacturing quality-control requirements, the agency gave Boeing 90 days to outline an action plan and address the panel’s findings.

Najmedin Meshkati, who served on the panel, said Boeing’s safety culture has “eroded” over the past two decades, in the wake of its merger with McDonnell Douglas in the late 90s, “under the direct watch of its leaders and board of directors, who have been complicit in and ultimately responsible for its present problems”.

Sam Salehpour, an engineer at Boeing, testified in front of Congress in April that the 787 was riddled with quality defects and called for all 787s to be grounded for inspection. Boeing denied his allegations and said it was “fully confident in the safety and durability” of the plane.

The mechanic who spoke to the Guardian described how “giant failures” in Boeing’s 787 production line had put enormous pressure on the company as it scrambles to reassure regulators, airlines and passengers.

“Right now, we’re in panic mode in Everett,” they said, because Boeing managers “finally figured out that they got more people that have no idea what’s going on, than people that do”.

Some veteran union employees at Boeing draw a link between its current issues and a move by the company more than two decades ago to introduce “team leader” managers, replacing a previous system whereby the most senior, experienced factory workers were in charge.

“The team leader isn’t picked by his skill on the airplane – he is picked by his relationship with another manager or another person,” said the mechanic. “Now we don’t have team leads who know what’s up.”


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