When Boeing Co. broke ground on its new factory near Charleston, S.C. in 2009, the plant was trumpeted as a state-of-the-art manufacturing hub, building one of the most advanced aircraft in the world. But in the decade since, the factory, which makes the 787 Dreamliner, has been plagued by shoddy production and weak oversight that have threatened to compromise safety.
A New York Times review of hundreds of pages of internal e-mails, corporate documents and federal records, as well as interviews with more than a dozen current and former employees, reveals a culture that often valued production speed over quality. Facing long manufacturing delays, Boeing pushed its workforce to quickly turn out Dreamliners, at times ignoring issues raised by employees.
Complaints about the frenzied pace echo broader concerns about the company in the wake of two deadly crashes involving another jet, the 737 Max 8. Boeing is facing questions about whether the race to get the Max 8 done, and catch up to its rival Airbus, led it to miss safety risks in the design, such as an anti-stall system that played a role in both crashes.
Safety lapses at the North Charleston plant have drawn the scrutiny of airlines and regulators. Workers have filed nearly a dozen whistleblower claims and safety complaints with federal regulators, describing issues like defective manufacturing, debris left on planes and pressure to not report violations. Others have sued Boeing, saying they were retaliated against for flagging manufacturing mistakes.
Joseph Clayton, a technician at the North Charleston plant, one of two facilities where the Dreamliner is built, said he routinely found debris dangerously close to wiring beneath cockpits.
“I’ve told my wife that I never plan to fly on it,” he said. “It’s just a safety issue.”
In an industry where safety is paramount, the collective concerns involving the company’s workhorse, the 737 Max 8, and another crown jewel, the 787 Dreamliner, point to potentially systemic problems. Regulators and lawmakers are taking a deeper look at Boeing’s priorities, and whether profits sometimes trumped safety.
“Boeing South Carolina teammates are producing the highest levels of quality in our history,” Kevin McAllister, Boeing’s head of commercial airplanes, said in a statement. “I am proud of our teams’ exceptional commitment to quality and stand behind the work they do each and every day.”
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.
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.”
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.
Less than a month after the crash of the second 737 Max 8 jet, Boeing called North Charleston employees to an urgent meeting. The company had a problem: Customers were finding random objects in new planes.
A senior manager implored workers to check more carefully, invoking the crashes. “The company is going through a very difficult time right now,” he said, according to two employees who were present and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Foreign-object debris is a common issue in aviation. Employees are supposed to clean the bowels of the aircraft as they work so they don’t accidentally contaminate the planes with shavings, tools, parts or other items.
But debris has remained a persistent problem in South Carolina. In an email this month, Brad Zaback, head of the 787 program, reminded the North Charleston staff that stray objects left inside planes “can potentially have serious safety consequences when left unchecked.”
The issue has cost Boeing at other plants. 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.
“To say it bluntly, this is unacceptable,” Will Roper, an assistant secretary of the Air Force, told a congressional subcommittee in March. “Our flight lines are spotless. Our depots are spotless, because debris translates into a safety issue.”
Boeing said it was working to address the issue with the Air Force, which resumed deliveries this month.
When it was unveiled in 2007, the 787 Dreamliner was Boeing’s most important new plane in a generation. The widebody jet, with a lightweight carbon-fibre fuselage and advanced technology, was a hit with carriers craving fuel savings.
Airlines ordered hundreds of the planes, which cost upward of US$200-million each. Spurred by high demand, Boeing set up a new factory.
One factor in choosing North Charleston was that South Carolina has the lowest percentage of union representation in the nation, giving Boeing a potentially less expensive workforce.
While Boeing has nurtured generations of aerospace professionals in the Seattle area, there was no comparable workforce in South Carolina. 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.
The 787 Max 8 was already running years behind schedule because of manufacturing hiccups and supplier delays. The labor shortages in North Charleston only made it worse.
Two former managers, Jennifer Jacobsen and David McClaughlin, said they had been pushed to cover up delays. Managers told employees to install equipment out of order to make it “appear to Boeing executives in Chicago, the aircraft purchasers and Boeing’s shareholders that the work is being performed on schedule, where in fact the aircraft is far behind schedule,” according to their complaints.
The FAA investigated the complaints and didn’t find violations on its visit to the plant in early 2014. But the agency said it had previously found “improper tool control” and the “presence of foreign object debris.”
Both managers left after they were accused of inaccurately approving the time sheets of employees who did not report to them. They both claim they were retaliated against for flagging violations. Through their lawyer, Rob Turkewitz, they declined to comment.
Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for Boeing, said, “We prioritize safety and quality over speed, but all three can be accomplished while still producing one of the safest airplanes flying today.”
In the interest of meeting deadlines, managers sometimes played down or ignored problems, according to current and former workers.
Mr. Barnett, the former quality manager, learned in 2016 that a senior manager had pulled a dented hydraulic tube from a scrap bin, he said. He said the tube, part of the central system controlling the plane’s movement, was installed on a Dreamliner.
He filed a complaint with human resources, company documents show.
He also reported to management that defective parts had gone missing, raising the prospect that they had been installed in planes. His bosses, he said, told him to finish the paperwork on the missing parts without figuring out where they had gone.
Cynthia Kitchens, a former quality manager, said her superiors penalized her in performance reviews and berated her on the factory floor after she flagged wire bundles rife with metal shavings and defective metal parts that had been installed on planes.
“It was intimidation,” she said. “Every time I started finding stuff, I was harassed.”
Kitchens left in 2016 and sued Boeing for age and sex discrimination. The case was dismissed.