A Boeing Co. program that speeds production by letting mechanics inspect their own work is leading to repeated mistakes on the 787 Dreamliner production line in North Charleston, workers say, at a time when the airplane maker is facing worldwide scrutiny over its safety record.
Some of the mistakes are serious safety hazards, like debris being left in the sensors that measure air speed while a plane is in flight. More common problems, workers say, range from surplus rags and bolts left in planes to loose cabin seats and unsecured galley equipment.
Workers say many of those production problems can be traced to the relatively new self-inspection program now spearheaded by Boeing Vice President Ernesto Gonzalez-Beltran, a former automobile executive with no previous aviation manufacturing experience.
The lean manufacturing approach Gonzalez-Beltran is working to incorporate at Boeing drew similar complaints and a lawsuit at a California auto plant he once helped manage.“I’m always finding cases where jobs are signed off and the parts aren’t installed,” said a Boeing worker, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal.
“It happens a lot.”Boeing says the program, which some regulators have called ineffective, is only used in stable production areas where defects typically are not being made.But some workers say the self-inspection program puts production speed ahead of passenger safety and that problems are often ignored to meet deadlines. While most of the mistakes are eventually caught before a plane is turned over to an airline, workers say they worry about what’s being missed.
And the mistakes, they say, are numerous.“It’s an everyday thing — every single day,” said a Boeing employee with firsthand knowledge of the production process. This worker also asked for anonymity.The complaints come to light in the wake of two deadly crashes of Boeing’s 737 Max planes, which are built in Washington state.
The accidents, which killed 346 people, have raised questions about Boeing’s coziness with federal regulators, who’ve turned over many of their airplane certification duties to the aerospace firm, which has ramped up production to keep pace with rival Airbus in the world market.The Federal Aviation Administration did not respond to several requests for comment.Boeing has been under siege in recent weeks, with a flurry of media reports questioning the speed at which its engineers on the West Coast have been pushed to certify planes, the slim attention its board has paid to safety concerns, and its failure to disclose a warning light problem on its troubled 737 Max for months before one crashed.
A report in The New York Times also pointed to shoddy production practices at the North Charleston plant. Workers told The Post and Courier the self-inspection program contributes heavily to problems cited by the Times.First-pass qualityThe program — called Multi-Function Process Performer, or MFPP — is part of Boeing’s “first-pass quality” initiative designed to hasten production while cutting down on errors. Work is supposed to be done right the first time, and Boeing says it usually is.“Where there are consistently stable processes, we believe there is no value added for a second set of eyes,” Gonzalez-Beltran said, adding the company would rather put those resources to use in more critical areas.
But Mary Schiavo, a former inspector general for the U.S. Department of Transportation, said she looked into similar self-inspection programs when she was in office and found they “weren’t an effective way to catch problems.” “They certify and pass their own work and say it meets the standards, and a lot of time we found that there really isn’t an inspection,” Schiavo said.
The program has been at the North Charleston plant since 2016 but has accelerated since Gonzalez-Beltran joined the aerospace giant the following year. Workers say the mistakes are increasing as Boeing expands it throughout the assembly process and ramps up Dreamliner production to 14 per month in a furious battle with France-based competitor Airbus for market share.