NYT raises questions about safety of Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner

With the grounding of the Boeing 737 Max 8 costing America’s largest exporter huge amounts of money and damaging its reputation, The New York Times piles on with a story by Natalie Kitroeff and David Gelles suggesting serious problems with the company’s other civil aviation mainstay, the 787 Dreamliner. Specifically, problems are identified with 787s assembled at the company’s new (ten years old) factory in North Charleston, SC, whereas Dreamliners assembled in Everett, Washington are presumed to be without issues.

Photo credit: Jose A. Montes

While the article includes reassuring disclaimers such as:

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.

It also includes disconcerting information, such as:

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.” (snip)

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.

The article points out that the Charleston facility is nonunion, while the Seattle area factories (Renton and Everett are the two final assembly facilties) are unionized and pay higher wages. (And, it should be pointed out, the cost of living in the Seattle area has skyrocketed in recent years, creating pressure for even higher wages there just to maintain the standard of living.)  Operating in a global industry with heavy competition coming from Airbus and a nascent Chinese airliner business threatening to develop into a formidable lower-cost competitor, Boeing has sought to reduce labor costs and escape burdensome taxation and regulation in Washington State by moving its headquarters to Chicago, far away from its manufacturing operations, as well as by the North Charleston assembly facility.

Although the Times makes no mention of it, another Boeing initiative with the 787 was the heavy use of outside companies to develop and manufacture major elements of the Dreamliner, including the wings, leaving Boeing more of a systems integrator than the overall manufacturer. Final assembly does not account for a majority of the value added in the manufacturing process. Airbus, it should be noted, has a final assembly facility for A330 airliners and tankers in Mobile, AL, another nonunion state with no history of sophisticated airliner manufacturing.  

The 787 represents a major technological advance in the airliner business by its use of carbon fiber to make the barrel segments glued together to make the fuselage. At first, this innovation cost Boeing time and money in perfecting the new technology, but there is evidence suggesting that having gone down the learning curve, Boeing’s costs of manufacturing the Dreamliner have plummeted. Observers note that the 787 has won quite a few orders over Airbus’s 787 competitor, the A350, which uses carbon fiber panels assembled into a metallic fuselage framework, quite possibly a more expensive hybrid manufacturing approach. This raises the possibility that Boeing now enjoys a cost advantage over Airbus for carbon fiber fuselages. Actual cost data, as well as the prices paid by airlines, are closely guarded commercial secrets.

But the Times implies that in order to avoid introducing too many unionized Seattle workers to the nonunion Charleston facility, Boeing may have ended up with a workforce too inexperienced to maintain quality.

While Boeing has nurtured generations of aerospace professionals in the Seattle area, there was no comparable work force in South Carolina. Instead, managers had to recruit from technical colleges in Tulsa, Okla., and Atlanta.

Managers were also urged to not hire unionized 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 nonunion area,” said David Kitson, a former quality manager, who oversaw a team responsible for ensuring that planes are safe to fly.

Nobody who flies on these aircraft can be sanguine about reports of debris left in airplanes or reports of damaged parts having gone missing, and possibly installed. But, in the comments section, the Times features at least one counterpoint voice.

Devendra

Boston, MAApril 20

Times Pick

I spent my whole life designing and then selling Jet Engines for GE all over the world. I know how Jet Engines are manufactured and how Aircrafts are manufactured. This article if accurate would have caused at least one if not more catastrophic accidents of B787 to date. Ordinary people who have no knowledge of Aerospace industry will buy this over exeggerated story but I DO NOT BUY IT. Yes, short cuts do take place, mistakes are made and coverd up. But one thing we in the Aerospcae Business are taught from the day one that there are no short cuts when it comes to safety and design. If the Engine fails or the Aircraft fails; you don't pull over the side of the raod and call AAA. PEOPLE DIE, YOUR BUSINESS DIES AND EVENTUALLY YOU (SORT OF) DIE. You have a very short career if you use short cuts on safety or design. It is one thing that will terminate the career of an employee before you can say 1,2,3. The mistakes that are exeggerated here will be corrected and, I think, are corrected. Remember, a number of these guys are fired and are disgruntled employees. I am NOT saying that mistakes are not made or faults were not hidden or short cuts were not taken but not the way it is portrayed here. It just simply can NOT happen in this business and the business survive.

Basically, the Times likes unions, and doesn't like union-busting and union-free states very much. So, that political orientation hangs ove the article. Butthis is not to dispute the alarming nature of some of Being's practices. The probelms are not limited to Charleston:

In March, the Air Force halted deliveries of the KC-46 tanker, built in Everett, Wash., after finding a wrench, bolts and trash inside new planes.

My great worry is that Boeing, a key champion in our industrial landscape, may be heading down the same path taken by the auto industry, declining from a position of global dominance to a lesser status, and giving up huge shares of the domestic and world markets in pursuit of short term profit maximization. Moving headquarters far from any manufacturing facilities is more than mere symbolism.

And removing quality control workers seems foolish, if only for PR reasons:

In North Charleston, the pace of production has quickened. Starting this year, Boeing is producing 14 Dreamliners a month, split between North Charleston and Everett, up from the previous 12. At the same time, Boeing said it was eliminating about a hundred quality control positions in North Charleston. [emphasis added]

Boeing's reputation is taking a terrible hit, and the ultimate damage has to be in the billions. Substative and symbolic countermeasures are essential to the company's future, even at the cost of lower profits in the short term

Hat tip: David Paulin

With the grounding of the Boeing 737 Max 8 costing America’s largest exporter huge amounts of money and damaging its reputation, The New York Times piles on with a story by Natalie Kitroeff and David Gelles suggesting serious problems with the company’s other civil aviation mainstay, the 787 Dreamliner. Specifically, problems are identified with 787s assembled at the company’s new (ten years old) factory in North Charleston, SC, whereas Dreamliners assembled in Everett, Washington are presumed to be without issues.

Photo credit: Jose A. Montes

While the article includes reassuring disclaimers such as:

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.

It also includes disconcerting information, such as:

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.” (snip)

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.

The article points out that the Charleston facility is nonunion, while the Seattle area factories (Renton and Everett are the two final assembly facilties) are unionized and pay higher wages. (And, it should be pointed out, the cost of living in the Seattle area has skyrocketed in recent years, creating pressure for even higher wages there just to maintain the standard of living.)  Operating in a global industry with heavy competition coming from Airbus and a nascent Chinese airliner business threatening to develop into a formidable lower-cost competitor, Boeing has sought to reduce labor costs and escape burdensome taxation and regulation in Washington State by moving its headquarters to Chicago, far away from its manufacturing operations, as well as by the North Charleston assembly facility.

Although the Times makes no mention of it, another Boeing initiative with the 787 was the heavy use of outside companies to develop and manufacture major elements of the Dreamliner, including the wings, leaving Boeing more of a systems integrator than the overall manufacturer. Final assembly does not account for a majority of the value added in the manufacturing process. Airbus, it should be noted, has a final assembly facility for A330 airliners and tankers in Mobile, AL, another nonunion state with no history of sophisticated airliner manufacturing.  

The 787 represents a major technological advance in the airliner business by its use of carbon fiber to make the barrel segments glued together to make the fuselage. At first, this innovation cost Boeing time and money in perfecting the new technology, but there is evidence suggesting that having gone down the learning curve, Boeing’s costs of manufacturing the Dreamliner have plummeted. Observers note that the 787 has won quite a few orders over Airbus’s 787 competitor, the A350, which uses carbon fiber panels assembled into a metallic fuselage framework, quite possibly a more expensive hybrid manufacturing approach. This raises the possibility that Boeing now enjoys a cost advantage over Airbus for carbon fiber fuselages. Actual cost data, as well as the prices paid by airlines, are closely guarded commercial secrets.

But the Times implies that in order to avoid introducing too many unionized Seattle workers to the nonunion Charleston facility, Boeing may have ended up with a workforce too inexperienced to maintain quality.

While Boeing has nurtured generations of aerospace professionals in the Seattle area, there was no comparable work force in South Carolina. Instead, managers had to recruit from technical colleges in Tulsa, Okla., and Atlanta.

Managers were also urged to not hire unionized 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 nonunion area,” said David Kitson, a former quality manager, who oversaw a team responsible for ensuring that planes are safe to fly.

Nobody who flies on these aircraft can be sanguine about reports of debris left in airplanes or reports of damaged parts having gone missing, and possibly installed. But, in the comments section, the Times features at least one counterpoint voice.

Devendra

Boston, MAApril 20

Times Pick

I spent my whole life designing and then selling Jet Engines for GE all over the world. I know how Jet Engines are manufactured and how Aircrafts are manufactured. This article if accurate would have caused at least one if not more catastrophic accidents of B787 to date. Ordinary people who have no knowledge of Aerospace industry will buy this over exeggerated story but I DO NOT BUY IT. Yes, short cuts do take place, mistakes are made and coverd up. But one thing we in the Aerospcae Business are taught from the day one that there are no short cuts when it comes to safety and design. If the Engine fails or the Aircraft fails; you don't pull over the side of the raod and call AAA. PEOPLE DIE, YOUR BUSINESS DIES AND EVENTUALLY YOU (SORT OF) DIE. You have a very short career if you use short cuts on safety or design. It is one thing that will terminate the career of an employee before you can say 1,2,3. The mistakes that are exeggerated here will be corrected and, I think, are corrected. Remember, a number of these guys are fired and are disgruntled employees. I am NOT saying that mistakes are not made or faults were not hidden or short cuts were not taken but not the way it is portrayed here. It just simply can NOT happen in this business and the business survive.

Basically, the Times likes unions, and doesn't like union-busting and union-free states very much. So, that political orientation hangs ove the article. Butthis is not to dispute the alarming nature of some of Being's practices. The probelms are not limited to Charleston:

In March, the Air Force halted deliveries of the KC-46 tanker, built in Everett, Wash., after finding a wrench, bolts and trash inside new planes.

My great worry is that Boeing, a key champion in our industrial landscape, may be heading down the same path taken by the auto industry, declining from a position of global dominance to a lesser status, and giving up huge shares of the domestic and world markets in pursuit of short term profit maximization. Moving headquarters far from any manufacturing facilities is more than mere symbolism.

And removing quality control workers seems foolish, if only for PR reasons:

In North Charleston, the pace of production has quickened. Starting this year, Boeing is producing 14 Dreamliners a month, split between North Charleston and Everett, up from the previous 12. At the same time, Boeing said it was eliminating about a hundred quality control positions in North Charleston. [emphasis added]

Boeing's reputation is taking a terrible hit, and the ultimate damage has to be in the billions. Substative and symbolic countermeasures are essential to the company's future, even at the cost of lower profits in the short term

Hat tip: David Paulin