Boeing workers blow whistle on 787 plant


Joseph Clayton, a technician at the 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.”

Boeing employees at North Charleston during the Dreamliner’s first flight.Credit:AP

In an industry where safety is paramount, the collective concerns involving 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.

“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.”

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 less than a month after the crash of the second 737 Max jet, Boeing called North Charleston employees to an urgent meeting. The company had a problem: Customers were finding random objects in new planes.

The company is going through a very difficult time right now.

A Boeing senior manager

A senior manager implored workers to check more carefully, invoking the crashes.

“The company is going through a very difficult time right now,” he said, according to two employees who were present and spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Foreign object debris is a common issue in aviation. Employees are supposed to clean the bowels of the aircraft as they work so they don’t accidentally contaminate the planes with shavings, tools, parts or other items.

But debris has remained a persistent problem in South Carolina. In an email this month, Brad Zaback, head of the 787 program, reminded the North Charleston staff that stray objects left inside planes “can potentially have serious safety consequences when left unchecked.”

Inside the Boeing plant in North Charleston.

Inside the Boeing plant in North Charleston.Credit:Bloomberg

The issue has cost Boeing at other plants. In March, the Air Force halted deliveries of the KC-46 tanker, built in Everett, Washington, after finding a wrench, bolts and trash inside new planes.

“To say it bluntly, this is unacceptable,” Will Roper, an assistant secretary of the Air Force, told a congressional subcommittee in March. “Our flight lines are spotless. Our depots are spotless, because debris translates into a safety issue.”

Boeing said it was working to address the issue with the Air Force, which resumed deliveries this month.

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When it was unveiled in 2007, the 787 Dreamliner was Boeing’s most important new plane in a generation. The widebody jet, with a lightweight carbon fibre fuselage and advanced technology, was a hit with carriers craving fuel savings.

Airlines – including Qantas, Singapore Airlines and British Airways – ordered hundreds of the planes, which cost upward of $200 million each. Spurred by high demand, Boeing set up a new factory.

One factor in choosing North Charleston was that South Carolina has the lowest percentage of union representation in the nation, giving Boeing a potentially less expensive workforce.

While Boeing has nurtured generations of aerospace professionals in the Seattle area, there was no comparable workforce in South Carolina. Managers had to recruit from technical colleges in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Atlanta.

Managers were also urged to not hire unionised employees from the Boeing factory in Everett, where the Dreamliner is also made, according to two former employees.

They didn’t want us bringing union employees out to a non-union area.

David Kitson a former Boeing quality manager

“They didn’t want us bringing union employees out to a non-union area,” said David Kitson, a former quality manager, who oversaw a team responsible for ensuring that planes are safe to fly.

The 787 was already running years behind schedule because of manufacturing hiccups and supplier delays. The labor shortages in North Charleston only made it worse.

Two former managers, Jennifer Jacobsen and David McClaughlin, said they had been pushed to cover up delays. Managers told employees 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 FAA investigated the complaints and did not 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”.

Both managers left after they were accused of inaccurately approving the time sheets of employees who did not report to them. They both claim they were retaliated against for flagging violations. Through their lawyer, Rob Turkewitz, they declined to comment.

Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for Boeing, said: “We prioritize safety and quality over speed, but all three can be accomplished while still producing one of the safest airplanes flying today.”

In the interest of meeting deadlines, managers sometimes played down or ignored problems, according to current and former workers.

Barnett, the former quality manager, learned in 2016 that a senior manager had pulled a dented hydraulic tube from a scrap bin, he said. He said the tube, part of the central system controlling the plane’s movement, was installed on a Dreamliner.

He filed a complaint with human resources, company documents show and 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.

Cynthia Kitchens, a former quality manager, said her superiors penalised 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.”

Kitchens left in 2016 and sued Boeing for age and sex discrimination. The case was dismissed.

New York Times

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