Boeing is calling attention to what executives describe as broad and effective measures taken in recent months to improve the quality and safety of the commercial jets rolling out of its production facilities.

Speaking to reporters this week, Boeing leaders laid out changes made to both aircraft production and employee training, insisting the updates are fixing lingering quality troubles.

Executives also disclosed more details about the broad genesis of those issues and, more specifically, about circumstances leading to the 5 January in-flight failure of a 737 Max 9’s mid-cabin door-plug – the event that set the recent reforms in motion.

Boeing's 737 Renton site 25 June 2024

Source: Jennifer Buchanan/Seattle Times

Boeing has significantly slowed 737 production in Renton amid a companywide quality improvement effort

“I am extremely confident that every airplane exiting this factory is safe,” Boeing senior vice-president of quality Elizabeth Lund said on 25 June, speaking at the company’s 737 production site in Renton. “We are a transparent company who cares deeply about safety”.

The 5 January incident did not seriously injure passengers or crew but could have had a much worse outcome. The ordeal set in motion renewed inquiries into Boeing by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and Department of Justice (DOJ).

The NTSB has traced the incident to missteps by Boeing. During production, Boeing employees removed the plug so workers for fuselage supplier Spirit AeroSystems could fix defective rivets. When replacing the plug, Boeing did not bolt it back in place.

Lund provides more detail, saying the jet was nearing the end of production when Boeing determined the rivets needed to be replaced. Boeing workers removed the plug but failed to document the work.

“There was no open paperwork that travelled with the airplane,” Lund says.

Boeing senior vice-president of quality Elizabeth Lund on 25 June 2024

Source: Jennifer Buchanan, Seattle Times

Boeing senior vice-president of quality Elizabeth Lund insists every aircraft rolling off Boeing’s lines is safe

After Spirit representatives fixed the rivets, the jet was then seemingly through with the production process. A Boeing “move crew” took over, closing the jet’s doors – and the plug – and moving it outside.

“The move crew closed the plug. They did not reinstall the retaining pins. That is not their job. Their job is to just close it,” Lund says.

Without documentation, Boeing workers continued preparing the jet for delivery, installing interior wall blankets and other cabin components, which concealed the defect, allowing it to remain undetected until it failed after about 150 flights.

“The fact that one employee could not fill out one piece of paperwork, in this condition, and result in an accident, was shocking to all of us,” says Lund.

Following the Alaska incident, the DOJ said Boeing’s conduct violated its 2021 deferred prosecution agreement. That deal let Boeing sidestep prosecution on criminal charges related to allegedly misleading the FAA during the Max’s certification. The DOJ has yet to say whether it will pursue prosecution.

The Senate also hauled chief executive David Calhoun to Washington, seeking an explanation. During an 18 June hearing, Calhoun remained calm but took a bashing, with one senator accusing the chief of “strip mining” Boeing and “cutting corners… for profit, [for] shareholder value”.

But Boeing is now pushing back. Lund says Boeing is taking ownership of its problems and taking decisive action.

Immediately following the door-plug failure, it ordered its engineering team to identify aircraft components and systems that could cause accidents. The company now requires that all jets undergo “end of line” checks of those critical systems immediately prior to delivery.

“We did this across all airplane programmes,” says Lund. “This was an immediate action to ensure that there was no non-conformance that left our system.”

Team leaders also started holding weekly 1h-long quality meetings with staff to identify problems – meetings that helped, for instance, flag an issue involving heat-shrink material used to protect wires.

Meanwhile, Boeing deployed more than 100 employees to oversee fuselages coming out of Spirit’s Wichita production site. The group is charged with ensuring defects are identified and fixed before being shipped Renton.

As a result, fuselages arriving in Renton have up to 80% fewer defects, allowing Boeing to move those fuselages much faster through its production lines, Lund says.

Additionally, Boeing has implemented new policies related to travelled work – meaning work completing at later stages of production than intended, often a result of missing parts. Because that practice opens risks, Boeing now strictly defines types of work that can and cannot be travelled. It has also strengthened oversight of “work in progress” – meaning incomplete jobs that roll from one shift to the next, says Boeing production system leader Jennifer Boland-Masterson.

Boeing's 737 Renton site 25 June 2024

Source: Jennifer Buchanan/Seattle Times

More broadly, Lund says Boeing is addressing one of the prime base factors contributing to its recent troubles: rookie workers.

Early during the pandemic, Boeing, like other aerospace companies, shed thousands of workers as demand dried up, ending 2020 with 141,000 employees – 20,000 fewer than one year earlier. As a result, Boeing was unprepared to restore production when demand rebounded. So it went on a hiring spree.

“We have brought in so many employees since Covid,” Lund says, noting many new-hires arrived with a “baseline level of experience” or none at all.

But the age and intricacy of the 737 production system proved difficult for many rookies to learn, Lund adds, noting the “sheer complexity” of the systems and processes, some of which were established “50, 60, 70 years” ago.

Lund says much progress has been made to correct that problem. New hires now spend weeks, not days, at Boeing’s “Foundational Training Center” in Renton. There, Boeing teaches basics of aircraft production, giving lessons in riveting, drilling and wiring.

They then move to the factory floor, where they receive much-more-thorough on-the-job training, Lund says. “That’s the part of the system that wasn’t structured enough.”

Now, all novices are assigned to an experienced “peer mentor” – a person who watches over their work and provides instruction on the factory floor. Such training also lasts longer than previously, and, in another change, new employees must pass assessments before striking out on their own.

Such changes have forced Boeing to significantly slow 737 production. It had hoped to be cranking out 38 of the jets monthly, but production is nowhere near that level.

Boeing 737 programme vice-president and general manager Katie Ringgold says Boeing would like to return to rate 38 “ in the next few months”. But she and others insist Boeing will simply not boost production until the system achieves stability.

Boeing is “dedicated to making air transportation as safe as humanly possible”, Lund says.