In yet another black eye for Boeing, the New York Times has published a scathing exposé detailing potential safety problems with a flagship line of Boeing jets--this time, the 787 Dreamliner. The Times scrutiny of Boeing comes in the aftermath of two fatal crashes in less than six months that exposed software and hardware flaws in a different set of popular Boeing jets, the 737 Max line.
Those flaws led to two tragic accidents and the deaths of a total of 346 people. After the second incident, the crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, 737 Max jets were effectively grounded around the world, awaiting Boeing's updated software, which should make those planes safe to fly again.
But safety concerns about the Dreamliner will be much harder to address because they don't result from a specific design or software issue that engineers might be able to fix. Instead, from what sources told the Times, they arise from how Boeing runs its factories, and how it handles reports from the factory floor about quality control issues. The Dreamliner is a wide-body jet built for long-haul overseas trips. Many national airlines fly them, as do American and United.
It's important to note one very big difference between the 787 Dreamliner and 737 Max lines. Unlike the Max, since its introduction in 2009, no Dreamliner has ever been involved in a crash or serious accident. However, the entire line was grounded for just over three months in 2013 due to design issues surrounding its lithium-ion battery and battery compartment. Those issues caused a fire during a Japan Airlines flight, and an earlier fire in an All Nippon Airways plane while it sat on the runway after passengers had disembarked. Boeing made some modifications to the battery system and the Dreamliners resumed flying. It's also important to note that many airlines--Boeing's customers--stand by the company and the safety of its planes.
The safety issues reported by the Times have nothing to do with the plane's batteries, but instead mostly revolve around items left in planes by workers that could imperil passengers and crew, and the treatment of Boeing employees who sought to raise the alarm. Here's a quick look at what the Times found after more than a dozen interviews and a review of corporate documents, internal emails, and government records.
1. Metal shavings and other debris.
John Barnett, a retired quality control manager says that he found metal shavings hanging over some of the wiring for flight controls. The shavings were created when a fastener was fitted into a nut. The Federal Aviation Administration also told the Times that it had found these shavings in Boeing planes that the company had certified free of debris. In certain situations, Barnett and an FAA spokesperson agree, those shavings could pierce the wiring and cause some very big problems. In 2017, the FAA ordered Boeing to remove all metal shavings from its planes before delivery. The company said it was complying, and working with a supplier to change the design of the nut.
And it was more than metal shavings. Workers, apparently under pressure from Boeing to produce planes more quickly as it struggled to beat out its rival Airbus, often left items within the body of the plane, ranging from a tube of sealant to a ladder.
The problem may not be limited to the Dreamliner. In March, the Air Force temporarily stopped accepting delivery of the KC-46 tanker after finding tools and trash in some of those planes. Boeing and the Air Force apparently worked out the problem, and the Air Force resumed began taking delivery on planes again this month.
2. Questionable treatment of employees who found problems.
Several employees told the Times that they were scolded or disciplined for finding debris or other problems on planes. Many of these issues seemed to be at their worst at the Boeing plant in North Charleston, South Carolina, which the company built in 2009 specifically to help meet high demand for its two-year-old 787 Dreamliner line.
In addition to the metal shavings, Barnett said he also saw a manager pull a defective part from a scrap pile, he believed to install on a plane. That complaint was investigated by the FAA, which concluded some damaged parts had indeed gone missing and might well be in use on planes. After the FAA investigation, Boeing issued a statement saying it would warn airlines about the defective parts as a precaution.
Barnett was disciplined for his role in bringing this problem to light--in a subsequent review he was downgraded for using email to report process violations instead of a face to face conversation. He took that to mean that the company wanted there to be no written record of what he'd found. In addition, the review said he should be better at "working in the gray areas and help find a way while maintaining compliance."
Kevin McAllister, CEO of Boeing's commercial airplanes division told the Times, "Boeing South Carolina teammates are producing the highest levels of quality in our history. I am proud of our teams' exceptional commitment to quality and stand behind the work they do each and every day."
This year, the company plans to roll out 14 Dreamliners a month, an increase from 12 a month last year. Half will be built in Everett, Washington, the other half in North Charleston. Meantime, according to the Times, even as production increases, the company has said it will eliminate about 100 quality control jobs from the North Charleston plant.
3. Keeping unions out at the expense of needed skills.
Boeing picked North Charleston for its Dreamliner plant for several reasons. Among them: The availability of lower cost labor and the $1 billion in incentives the state offered Boeing to move there. But the company may also have been attracted because South Carolina has the lowest percentage of unionized workers in the country.
Clearly, Boeing does not want a unionized workforce in South Carolina. Last year, the plant's flight readiness technicians and inspectors voted to join the International Association of Machinists. That's after Boeing campaigned hard against it and went to court to try to have the vote delayed or the ballots impounded. Boeing lost in court, but is filing an appeal. If it wins, its flight readiness personnel will lose union representation. That's 178 people at a plant that employs about 6,700.
Two managers reported to the Times that they were told not to hire managers from the Everett plant because the company did not want unionized employees interacting with non-unionized ones and potentially recruiting them. Not hiring from Everett created a skills shortage, though, because South Carolina doesn't have a pool of skilled aviation workers on the scale that the Seattle area does.
Ever since the Lion Air crash last fall that first brought to light the problems with the 737 Max line, CEO Dennis Muilenberg has repeated one message over and over, though the wording has varied. In his recent response to the preliminary report on the Ethiopian Airlines crash, he put it this way: "We've always been relentlessly focused on safety and always will be." In his first comments on that accident and on the 737 Max software issue, he said this: "Safety is a core value for everyone at Boeing and the safety of our airplanes, our customers' passengers and their crews is always our top priority."
If what these managers say is accurate--that the company chose not to bring skilled employees to South Carolina for fear they'd bring the union with them--then those statements just don't ring true.
I've reached out to Boeing for comment. If they respond, I will update this piece.