Boeing is under fire for one more of its planes – the Boeing 787 Dreamliner.
While the wounds are still fresh from the two Boeing 737 MAX crashes, journalists have dealt another blow to the company. Recently, an article surfaced on the New York Times about the fact that Boeing is cutting corners on yet another aircraft. This time, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner.
Boeing produces the aircraft in two plants – in Everett and in North Charleston, South Carolina. Separated by the whole of the United States, the latter factory has been widely criticized for the way it is handling its quality control.
Announced in 2003 as the 7E7, the Boeing 787 was a revolutionary wide-body aircraft. The lightweight fuselage, newest technological features in the 787’s flight systems and a slick wing promised airlines something that they do not want to stop hearing – fuel efficiency.
And airlines lined up to purchase the new aircraft in order to replace the aging Boeing 767s. Boeing was more than happy, as its newest aircraft was a hit – sales and subsequently profits soared.
Yet it created a problem. Boeing’s Everett factory was getting too cramped to fit all the 787 orders. Boeing had to expand to meet the demand, as delivery times were constantly pushed back by the American manufacturer.
So, just a few months before the Boeing 787 conducted its first commercial flight with All Nippon Airways, Boeing opened up a new factory in North Charleston in July of 2011. The newest factory exclusively builds 787s.
The town welcomed the newest factory with open arms. South Carolina’s government offered tax incentives, which included money dedicated to training the local workforce. In return, Boeing promised to revive the local economy after the 2008 financial crisis had a heavy impact on the city’s economy and unemployment.
Boeing's North Charleston factory
Everything seemed to go great on the production of the Boeing 787. Airlines kept lining up to order the aircraft, Boeing step-by-step increased the production numbers and everything seemed to be going great.
However, 2 years after its introduction into commercial aviation, problems started to spark. Specifically, it was the battery of the 787. Two separate incidents where the aircraft’s battery experienced a fire, one while in the air and the other while parked at Boston Logan International Airport.
Two Japanese airlines, the previously mentioned ANA and Japan Airlines were first to ground their 787 fleet. The same day, on January 16th, 2013, the FAA issued an airworthiness directive to all American airlines to ground their Boeing 787s.
After a few months of tests and with the addition of new methods to protect the battery from overheating, the Boeing 787 resumed commercial flights in April of 2013.
But a report, published by the NTSB (National transportation safety board) in 2014 included some harsh criticism towards Boeing, the FAA for approving the battery and the battery manufacturer itself – Yuasa.
As time went on and no fatal accidents happened from the faulty batteries, everything seemed to be back to normal for Boeing.
Yet that was just the calm before the storm.
ANA Boeing 787
2 years later after the NTSB report, All Nippon Airways started to notice that the Rolls-Royce engine blades of the Boeing 787 were very prone to corrosion and later, cracks.
These issues were related purely to the Rolls-Royce engines. While the engine manufacturer provided a short-term solution and introduced new engine blades, it worked on completely new engines to put on the Boeing 787. The British engine manufacturer introduced the Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 TEN in November of 2017.
But the newest engine did not last long – at the beginning of April of 2019, Singapore Airlines has announced they were grounding some of their Boeing 787 fleet related to the same engine issues on the new Rolls-Royce engine.
Singapore Airlines Boeing 787
While Boeing was not at fault for the engine failures, but more groundings to a Boeing plane can cause a PR disaster for the company. Their planes can be the safest in the sky, yet after so many blunders the confidence of the public can be at an all-time low.
However, recently an article in the New York Times provided some insight into the way that Boeing manufactures one of it‘s most successful airliners – the Boeing 787. It has, to some extent, shifted some of the blame towards the other side.
Boeing chose a location for their new factory on the other side of the country. The company moved some of its operations away from their home in Seattle. It meant that together with building a new plant, they would need to hire a lot of new employees, who needed to be trained and qualified.
And yet again, Boeing started to cut corners. While to no fault of their own that the local workforce has not yet developed fully to support their demand of aviation professionals, but Boeing was very strict about bringing workers that were in a union back in Seattle to the new factory.
It meant that the North Charleston factory hired less experienced people. But for Boeing, it saved a lot of money, as a unionized workforce means much higher labor costs.
But the inexperienced factory workers were not the main problem. The upper management of the factory was.
Their main agenda was to showcase to Boeing’s office in Chicago, airlines that have ordered the aircraft and shareholders that work was done on time. As delays from the parts suppliers’ and the manufacturing process were happening, both factories could not keep up with the massive amount of orders.
Manufacturing process of the Boeing 787
This meant that safety became a second priority – something that should never happen in the aviation industry. A single mistake in the manufacturing process can cause a fatal accident that could kill hundreds of people.
But even inside the factory, quality managers constantly filed complaints and reports that some of the Boeing 787 Dreamliners were a potential danger to human life.
But upper management either ignored the complaints or started dealing with the quality managers instead of the problem at hand. This is again evident to the fact that the North Charleston plant wanted to make a profit, rather than quality aircraft.
People, who were responsible that the delivered 787s were up to par with the quality standards were constantly finding various items and debris that shouldn't be in an aircraft.
For example, clusters of metal shavings were found near the electrical wires that are responsible for the control of the aircraft. In a case of the shavings cutting the wires, pilots would totally lose the control of the aircraft. The consequences would be deadly and not easily preventable.
However, it is preventable in the factory.
In a 2014 documentary released by Al Jazeera called “Broken dreams: the Boeing 787”, one of the engineers working on the aircraft said: “I wouldn’t fly on one of these planes. Because I see the quality of the f****** s*** going down around here.”
So, the easily preventable disasters (that are yet to happen, thankfully) were not taken care of.
Apart from the debris of metal shavings, tubes, bolts and other objects left in the aircraft, people have reported that upper managers took parts out of the defective parts pool. The parts were later installed on the aircraft and delivered to customers.
One customer said enough is enough.
The CEO of Qatar Airways sent a video to the factory‘s employees. Criticizing the factory and Boeing for the huge delays and clarity on why the delays were happening, Qatar Airways stopped buying aircraft made in North Charleston.
Qatar Airways Boeing 787
The quality managers, who reported the problems, were the ones to suffer. Most of them were laid off by Boeing, moved to another position or pushed down the career ladder.
Most of the fired workers sued Boeing for the inappropriate lay-offs.
But Boeing is not slowing down. The two factories, namely in South Carolina and in Everett, are increasing their Boeing 787 Dreamliner production numbers. If previously the two built 12 Dreamliners per month, in 2019 Boeing produces 14.
The general public raised even more concerns regarding the safety of the aircraft and the ability of Boeing to maintain proper quality standards. Aviation experts are worried that the South Carolina plant is pushed to a breaking point.
But Boeing stepped in. After the New York Times published the article about the shady quality standards in the factory, Boeing South Carolina started manning their defensive positions the same day. They fired back.
Boeing’s South Carolinian division publicly published a message that they sent to their employees. While the United States is known as the land of the free, the message read like something that a Soviet factory manager would tell his employees after announcing their 5-year plan results. It even included testimonies from current 787 customers, namely Suparna Airlines and Norwegian.
The Vice President and General manager of the 787 program has noted that the increase in production “continues to be the most seamless rate transition in the program’s history” and that the quality of the aircraft has not dropped, but that the factory is “performing at all-time high levels”.
The press release directly fired back at The New York Times, stating that the article is describing old and inaccurate information about the current situation at Boeing South Carolina.
But the press release and the article are at odds.
First of all, instead of directly addressing the issues in the article, the message praises the employees working in the factory and just calls the story a misleading one.
Secondly, as mentioned above, airlines came to defend the plant‘s products. Yet the 3 (American Airlines were also mentioned) customers are a very small percentage of the total operators of the Boeing 787. According to Boeing‘s website, there are 72 operators worldwide.
And even if an American Airlines representative praised the 787, a former mechanic of the airline had other thoughts. Debris, found on a regular basis around critical areas of the aircraft certainly was not worthy of any praise whatsoever.
Thirdly, the message states that the information is old and the New York Times is resurfacing old facts. Yet the article established a clear timeline – that employees received a message this April about leaving debris inside of an aircraft.
Take it as you will, but if there was one word that would describe Boeing’s message – dishonest fits perfectly.
But there was one small but at the same time huge detail that the journalists mentioned in the article. Boeing themselves certified aircraft free of debris and the FAA only checked several of them. What the authorities found was the same metal shavings in various parts of the aircraft that can potentially cause a fatal disaster.
When the news broke out that Boeing also certified most of the Boeing 737 MAX, as the FAA did not have enough resources to do so themselves (and Boeing might have lobbied the decision just a tad bit), the finger was pointed at Boeing and the FAA for negligence. In an environment where Airbus is pressuring American manufacturer to its limits, letting Boeing certify its own aircraft creates a potential danger hazard. And in the case with the 737 MAX – that is exactly what had happened, as two deadly crashes claimed the lives of over 300 people in Ethiopia and Indonesia.
Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 MAX
If Boeing is allowed to certify its own aircraft yet again points to the fact that something is not right in the certification process. The company‘s main interest is to make a profit and certifying the aircraft as fast as possible can help secure a bigger market share and subsequently, more profit.
And it seems like the management at Boeing is really only interested in profit.
As the first quarter of the year has just ended, Boeing published its financial results for the time period. They look grim, as deliveries, revenues and earnings are down compared to Q4 of 2018. The second quarter of 2019 should bring an even harsher outlook, as this is the time period when airlines grounded their Boeing 737 MAX 8s, while Boeing kept making the aircraft type. So, Boeing spent money on the manufacturing of the aircraft, yet made none.
Their public image is at a disastrous state as well after the two 737 MAX crashes. Even after it is allowed to fly again, not many people will have the guts to step on one. And articles exposing their subpar manufacturing standards are not helping either.
Boeing has some serious work on their hands. Not only making sure that their newest iteration of the 737 will fly again, but that no other disasters are going to happen.
And if anything, firing your employees for reporting manufacturing blunders and making those blunders in the first place is definitely not helping.