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Boeing's 787 Dreamliner in the Hot Seat Over 'Shoddy Production and Weak Oversight'

April 21, 2019
4 min read
Boeing's 787 Dreamliner in the Hot Seat Over 'Shoddy Production and Weak Oversight'
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One of the toughest jobs on the planet at the moment has to be handling public relations for Boeing. In the wake of the Lion Air crash, the Ethiopian Airlines crash less than six months later, and the worldwide grounding of the Boeing 737 MAX fleet, it's been nearly nonstop bad news for the company. Today, the New York Times published a new report about Boeing's 787 Dreamliner that will make that job even tougher.

The report, which is based on "hundreds of pages of internal emails, corporate documents and federal records, as well as interview with more than a dozen current and former employees," focuses on Boeing's North Charleston, SC, plant, which is one of two locations where Boeing produces the 787 Dreamliner (the other being Everett, WA). The Times' investigation of Boeing "reveals a culture that often valued production speed over quality." Facing delays and massive cost overruns since even the early days of the 787 program, Boeing "pushed its work force to quickly turn out Dreamliners, at times ignoring issues raised by employees."

Joseph Clayton, a former technician, went on record to say he told his wife that he never plans to fly on the Dreamliner. "It’s just a safety issue," Clayton said.

The Times' article isn't the first indication that something might have been amiss at Boeing's North Charleston factory. Qatar Airways stopped accepting aircraft built in the South Carolina plant after receiving damaged planes and delayed deliveries.

In addition, the United States Air Force has twice now stopped taking deliveries of the KC-46 Pegasus, which is based on Boeing's 767 and built at the Everett plant. The military cited issues with foreign object debris, or FOD, meaning any foreign objects in the aircraft that could potentially cause damage, as the main issue. Debris can range from something as tiny as metal shavings to larger items like wrenches, bolts or other tools and parts.

Rich Mester, a pre-delivery review technician with Boeing, told the Times his FOD sightings included tubes of sealant, nuts and "stuff from the build process." While FOD is a fairly common issue in the manufacturing of aircraft, objects are usually removed during detailed inspections.

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John Barnett, a former quality manager who worked at Boeing for nearly 30 years, routinely discovered metal slivers hanging over the wiring that commands the Dreamliner flight controls. If the sharp metal pieces were to penetrate the wires, he said, it could be “catastrophic.” Barnett said he "urged his bosses to remove the shavings" but that they refused and instead relocated him within the factory.

TPG obtained an email that was sent out to all employees from Brad Zaback, the 787 vice president and general manager, in response to the article in the Times. Zaback told employees that the story "paints a skewed and inaccurate picture of the program and of our team here at Boeing South Carolina." He went on to say that the article featured "distorted information, rehashing old stories and rumors that have long ago been put to rest."

According to Zaback, Boeing gave the Times the opportunity to tour the Charleston plant, but the Times "declined this invitation."

PR nightmare aside, it would seem that Boeing's customers are still backing the aviation giant. American Airlines spokesperson Ross Feinstein issued a statement saying, "We have confidence in the 787s we have in our fleet." In addition, Norwegian Airlines said, "We are very satisfied with the quality and reliability of all 33 of our Dreamliners, regardless of where they have been assembled."

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Featured image by 787-8 Dreamliner. Image courtesy of Boeing.