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How Boeing chose speed over quality for the 737 Max| GuyWhoKnowsThings

In February of last year, a new Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 Max plane was on one of its first flights when an automated stabilization system appeared to malfunction, forcing pilots to make an emergency landing shortly after takeoff.

Less than two months later, an Alaska Airlines 737 Max plane with eight hours of total flight time was briefly grounded until mechanics resolved a problem with a fire detection system. And in November, an engine on a newly delivered United Airlines 737 Max failed at 37,000 feet.

These incidents, which airlines reported to the Federal Aviation Administration, were not widely reported. There was no indication that anyone was in danger and it was unclear who was ultimately responsible for those problems. But since Jan. 5, when a panel on a two-month-old Alaska Airlines 737 Max 9 plane exploded in midair, episodes like these have taken on new resonance, raising more questions about the quality of the planes Boeing is producing. .

“There are a lot of areas where things don't seem right in the first place,” said Joe Jacobsen, an engineer and aviation safety expert who spent more than a decade at Boeing and more than 25 years at the FAA.

“The issue is shortcuts everywhere: not doing the job right,” he added.

Such reports and interviews with aviation safety experts and more than two dozen current and former Boeing employees paint a troubling picture about a company long considered the pinnacle of American engineering. They suggest Boeing is struggling to improve quality years after two Max 8 plane crashes in 2018 and 2019 killed nearly 350 people.

Some of the crucial layers of layoffs that are supposed to ensure Boeing's planes are safe appear to be overloaded, the people said. The experience level of Boeing's workforce has declined since the start of the pandemic. The inspection process intended to provide vital monitoring of the work performed by your mechanics has weakened over the years. And some suppliers have struggled to meet quality standards while producing parts at the pace Boeing wanted.

Under pressure to show regulators, airlines and passengers that the company is taking its latest crisis seriously, Boeing announced sweeping changes to its leadership on Monday. CEO Dave Calhoun is leaving at the end of the year, and Stan Deal, head of the commercial aircraft division, which makes the 737 Max, retired immediately. The company's president, Larry Kellner, has resigned from that position and will not seek re-election to the board.

When he took the top job in January 2020, Calhoun said he was determined to improve the company's safety culture. He added directors with engineering and safety experience and created a safety committee on his board of directors. Boeing said it had increased the number of quality inspectors for commercial aircraft by 20 percent since 2019 and that inspections per plane had also increased.

After the Max 8 crashes, Boeing and its regulators focused more on the cause of those crashes: faulty design and software. However, some current and former employees say problems with manufacturing quality were also evident to them at the time and should have been to executives and regulators as well.

After the Jan. 5 mishap, a six-week FAA audit of Boeing's 737 Max production documented dozens of failures in Boeing's quality control practices. the agency has given the company three monthsor until the end of May, to address quality control issues.

Federal officials have traced the panel explosion to Boeing's factory in Renton, Washington, where the 737 Max is assembled. According to the National Transportation Safety Board, the panel was removed but appeared to have been reinstalled without the bolts holding it in place. This panel is known as a “door stopper” and is used to cover the space left by an unnecessary emergency exit.

Current and former Boeing employees said the incident reflected long-standing problems. Several said employees often faced intense pressure to meet production deadlines, sometimes leading to questionable practices that they feared could compromise quality and safety.

Davin Fischer, a former Renton mechanic who also spoke with Seattle television station KIRO 7He said he noticed a cultural shift starting in 2017, when the company introduced the Max.

“They were trying to increase the speed of the plane and then they kept creaking, creaking, creaking to go faster, faster, faster,” he said.

The Max was introduced in response to a new fuel-efficient aircraft from the European manufacturer Airbus. Boeing increased production from about 42 Max planes a month in early 2017 to about 52 the following year. That rate dropped to virtually zero shortly after the second crash, in Ethiopia, when regulators around the world suspended the flight. Flights aboard the Max resumed at the end of 2020and the company began increasing production again to avoid falling further behind Airbus.

Now, some Boeing executives admit they made mistakes.

“For years, we prioritized moving the plane through the factory over getting it right, and that has to change,” Brian West, the company's chief financial officer, said at an investor conference last week.

Calhoun has also acknowledged that Boeing must improve, but has defended the company's production approach. “Over the last few years, we've been very careful not to over-speed the system and have never hesitated to slow down, stop production or stop deliveries to take the time we need to get things right,” he said. he said in January.

Current and former Boeing employees, most of whom spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to reporters and feared retaliation, offered examples of how quality has suffered over the years. Many said they still respected the company and its employees and wanted Boeing to succeed.

A quality manager in Washington state who left Boeing last year said workers assembling airplanes sometimes tried to install parts that had not been recorded or inspected, in an attempt to save time by circumventing quality procedures meant to remove components. defective or of inferior quality.

In one case, the employee said, a worker sent parts from a receiving area directly to the factory before a required inspection.

A worker currently working at Boeing's 787 Dreamliner factory in North Charleston, South Carolina, described seeing numerous problems with planes being assembled, including improperly routed cables, increasing the risk that they could rub against each other and cause damage.

Sometimes employees would also go “looking for inspectors” to find someone to approve the work, the worker said.

Some of the concerns echoed accusations of quality failures by Several whistleblowers at the Boeing factory in South Carolina who spoke to The Times in 2019.

Several current and former employees in South Carolina and Washington state said mechanics who build airplanes were in some cases allowed to approve their own work. Such “self-checking” removes a crucial layer of quality control, they said.

Boeing said in a statement Wednesday that it had eliminated self-inspections in South Carolina in 2021 and that the practice accounted for less than 10 percent of inspections at other sites. The company inspects each plane before delivery to ensure cable bundles are spaced appropriately, according to the statement, and does not allow inspectors to shop.

Another factor at play in recent years has been that Boeing workers have less experience than before the pandemic.

When the pandemic took hold in early 2020, air travel plummeted and many aviation executives believed it would be years before passengers returned in large numbers. Boeing began cutting jobs and encouraged workers to make acquisitions or retire early. In the end, it lost about 19,000 employees companywide, including some with decades of experience.

In late 2022, Boeing lost veteran engineers who retired to secure higher monthly pension payments, which were tied to interest rates, according to the union that represents them, the Society of Aerospace Engineering Professional Employees. More than 1,700 union members left the company that year, up from about 1,000 the year before. The members who left had been with the company for more than 23 years on average.

“We warned Boeing that it was going to lose a mountain of experience and proposed some solutions, but the company rejected us,” Ray Goforth, the union's executive director, said in a statement, adding that he thought the company used the retirements as an opportunity to reduce costs by replacing veteran workers with “lower-paid entry-level engineers and technical workers.”

Boeing now employs 171,000 people, including its commercial aircraft, defense, services and other divisions. That figure has increased about 20 percent since the end of 2020. But many new workers have less experience, current and former employees said.

A Boeing employee who performed quality inspections in Washington state until last year said the company didn't always give new employees enough training, sometimes letting them learn crucial skills from more experienced colleagues.

Boeing said that since Jan. 5, employees had asked for more training and that it was working to meet those needs, including adding factory training this month.

District 751 of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, which represents more than 30,000 Boeing employees, said the average tenure of its members had dropped sharply in recent years. The proportion of its members who have less than six years of experience has roughly doubled to 50 percent from 25 percent before the pandemic.

After the Jan. 5 incident, Boeing announced changes to improve quality, including adding inspections at its factory in Renton and at the plant in Wichita, Kansas, owned by a supplier, Spirit AeroSystems, which makes the plane bodies. Max.

Boeing recently said it would no longer accept Max bodies from Spirit that still needed substantial work. Previously, it tolerated failures that could be corrected later in the interest of keeping production on schedule.

Addressing its problems could take time for Boeing, aviation experts said, frustrating airlines that need new planes.

Some airlines recently said they were readjusting their growth plans because they expected fewer Boeing planes. Airlines may try to buy more of Airbus.

“They need to go slow to go fast,” United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby told investors this month, referring to Boeing. “I think they're doing that.”

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