Boeing is seeing a crisis involving one product prompt scrutiny—and bad press—about another.
The aircraft manufacturer has been scrambling to reassure consumers and airlines that it takes safety seriously and hasn’t shortchanged design quality to rush airplanes to market. The flaws built into its 737 Max jet, which have been blamed for two crashes in six months, are widely seen as avoidable.
With many asking how Boeing could allow serious design flaws to persist on such an important product line for the company, the focus has shifted to its manufacturing processes—including those for its Dreamliner airplanes.
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.
The New York Times wrote:
“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.”
Other employees had more damaging comments.
The New York Times reported:
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.”
… 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.”
… “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.”
One damaging accusation is how Boeing has treated workers who raised safety concerns.
The New York Times reported:
Cynthia Kitchens, a former quality manager, said her superiors penalized 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. The case was dismissed.
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.”
Reporters used social media to share their thoughts.
The juxtaposition between Boeing employees saying *on the record* that they wouldn’t fly on the 787 and Boeing execs saying their production quality has never been higher is…jarring. pic.twitter.com/vUJe0rPdh1
— David Enrich (@davidenrich) April 20, 2019
Many on social media linked the manufacturing problems to Boeing’s efforts to avoid using union labor.
— Ken Tremendous (@KenTremendous) April 21, 2019
Key question underlying this damning, upsetting piece: how much of the shoddy work at Boeing's South Carolina plant can be attributed to its seeking out a cheaper, nonunion workforce in the first place? https://t.co/ilm5d7DjLP
— Alec MacGillis (@AlecMacGillis) April 22, 2019
Boeing chose anti-union dogma over safety.
“They didn’t want us bringing union employees out to a non-union area,” said a quality manager charged with making sure planes were safe. “We struggled with that. There wasn’t the qualified labor pool locally.” https://t.co/PylNKuG3Hu
— John Nichols (@NicholsUprising) April 21, 2019
Others asked why government regulators have yet to intercede:
First the Boeing 737 MAX, now the 787. Does @USDOT take ANY part of protecting the flying public seriously? And this is just the tip of the iceberg, as @USDOT has been ignoring their statutory consumer protection & promoting competition missions for years. https://t.co/t9700qAGpH
— Travel Fairness Now (@Travel_Fairness) April 22, 2019
Gut check: Urgently concerning safety lapses require immediate investigation of both Boeing & the FAA. What did they know & when did they know it? Whistleblowers need strong protection. Boeing needs to be taken to the woodshed. The FAA needs far-reaching reform. https://t.co/OHz6OdAh5y
— Richard Blumenthal (@SenBlumenthal) April 21, 2019
Many on social media found the treatment of whistleblowers to be the most disturbing:
Most chilling line: Some employees said they had been punished or fired when they voiced concerns. That is as good a description of #PsychologicalSafety failure as any I've heard. https://t.co/01P1KheoHc
— Amy Edmondson (@AmyCEdmondson) April 21, 2019
The scrutiny the manufacturer faced has become a problem for many airlines as they struggle to meet consumer expectations. After the 737 Max’s flaws came to light, many consumers refused to fly on 737 Max planes and demanded refunds.
Some airlines are pushing back on the Dreamliner, as well.
Some airlines expressed concerns about Dreamliners from the North Charleston factory as well. According to the report, the CEO of Qatar Airlines sent a video to the factory in 2014, expressing disappointment and concerns about delays and flaws in Dreamliners assembled there. The Times noted that the airline subsequently only purchased Dreamliners assembled in Boeing’s Everett, Washington factory.
How would you advise Boeing to respond, PR Daily readers?