Aviation is an industry in which the margins for error are minuscule, often down to thousandths of an inch. It is a highly regulated field, and with good reason.
“Your airplane breaks down; you don’t pull over the side of a cloud and park there for a while and get it fixed,” says former Boeing engineer Cynthia Cole.
Cole spent 32 years at the Boeing Company. She is what is known in the Boeing community as “a heritage engineer”.
Concentrated in and around the US city of Seattle in Washington State, “heritage engineers” often take pride in their uncompromising attitude towards safety and quality in aviation. It is a problem-solving culture that values finding and fixing issues with aircraft production and design.
“Heritage engineers” is also a term that has come to signify employees who worked at Boeing pre-1997, before its merger with McDonnell Douglas.
At that point, most agree, the company’s culture changed. In a speech in 1998, Harry Stonecipher, who became chief executive after the merger, famously warned employees to “quit behaving like a family and become more like a team”.
“If you don’t perform, you don’t stay on the team,” he said.
For “heritage engineers”, the changes were unwelcome. Many felt the new Boeing was not just replacing family with team; it was also transforming the company.
Seattle Business magazine reflected in 2011 that the company had gone from “a family-oriented research company to a profit-driven production house”. As a result, the magazine said, Boeing had “lost the loyalty of its workforce”.
Cole says she felt the merger was wrong. “I thought that quality would suffer and the integrity of the product would suffer.”
“Anybody I know that’s a heritage Boeing employee has said the same kind of things,” says Cole.
Another “heritage engineer” tells Al Jazeera that the change from “old” Boeing to the “new” Boeing had been significant. He says the 787, which he had worked on, was born to a transformed company.
You don't change your quality process for schedule. You make quality happen in the schedule.
Requesting anonymity, he points to a document that he says was indicative of Boeing’s new approach to problem solving. It was a memo dealing with quality control on the 787 and the qualification of structural parts of the plane.
“Everything has an order to it, that is how you maintain conformance,” says the engineer. “But [Boeing managers] decided to allow subsequent qualifications and processes to start before fixing the first ones that were failing.”
Al Jazeera showed the document to Cynthia Cole. One sentence caught her eye: “The program schedule may require deviation to the preferred process.”
“You don’t change your quality process for schedule,” she says. “You make quality happen in the schedule.”
“As a Boeing engineer, this makes me feel emotional,” says Cole. “They’re short-changing the engineering process to meet a schedule.”
The engineer who shared the document agrees with Cole’s assessment. He says leadership “felt they had the authority to override requirements for the good of the program schedule”.
The memo was written in January 2010, when the Boeing 787 “Dreamliner” was already more than two years late. Time pressure was intense. Customers had been waiting for the plane since 2008.
“We all protested,” says the engineer. “It fell on deaf ears.”
“They changed basic engineering principles to meet schedule.”
Boeing emphatically denies this, saying it doesn’t change its quality protocols to expedite schedule. In a statement, the company said, “The process specifications referenced in this document from 2010 were fully consistent with Boeing’s robust quality assurance system.”
“While we will not discuss in detail our proprietary production processes, we note that the document itself concludes by saying that the process changes ‘do not signify authorisation to ship or accept parts which do not meet engineering and quality requirements'”.
The engineer who shared the document with Al Jazeera says it was produced “because the supplier could not meet the requirements, which were causing delays”.
The supplier in question is Alenia Aermacchi, an Italian manufacturer that makes two large sections of the fuselage of the Boeing 787. The company began working in partnership with another US company, Vought, under the name Global Aeronautica. That partnership ended in 2009.
“I think the poster child for our problems was Global Aeronautica and Alenia,” says Stan Sorscher, a former Boeing engineer and now a union labour representative. “These were partners that were in trouble.”
Unlike other passenger aircraft, the Boeing 787 fuselage is constructed from several barrels of carbon fibre reinforced plastic (CFRP). Most aircraft are constructed from panels of aluminium.
Alenia struggled to build the innovative new plastic tubes. “Section 46 is a one-piece barrel, which is a unique technology in the world today,” says Alenia Chief Operating Officer Donato Amoroso.
To build it, Alenia prepares the CFRP and then cures it in a giant pressure chamber, or autoclave, which hardens the material. But if anything is wrong with the material before it goes into the autoclave, the whole thing will be unusable.
“The nature of one-piece barrel is such that when you cure big parts of that in the autoclave, once it’s cured, it’s cured. Whatever is inside that is not per spec, you have no choice rather than scrap the whole barrel,” says Amoroso.
In the early stages of production, Alenia scrapped around five percent of those made, according to Amoroso. The problems added to the delays across the whole Boeing 787 programme.
“Whenever in aerospace you’re launching a new product or when you start manufacturing the process, you will encounter issues that have to be solved along the way,” says Amoroso.
Alenia Aermacchi also makes the tail wing for the Boeing 787, known as the horizontal stabiliser. The part is also made from CFRP.
“The tail stabiliser is being built at Foggia, and Foggia had serious issues in achieving the standards of quality that Boeing required,” says Donato Stefanelli, a union leader who represents Alenia workers in Italy. Stefanelli participated in meetings with managers, and says “the pressure on workers was very intense”.
Just like the fuselage, Boeing also found problems with Alenia’s horizontal stabiliser. In 2010, the company uncovered flaws and ordered that the parts be inspected. This was widely reported at the time.
But what was not reported, and what is revealed by another document shared with Al Jazeera, is that Boeing’s supplier quality team had disapproved the Foggia clean room facility and recommended that work be stopped.
The documents show that despite the disapproval, Boeing managers wrote to Alenia and instructed the company to “continue with fabrication and assembly activities without delay”. Managers had overruled the quality inspectors in order to continue production.
In a statement to Al Jazeera, the Boeing Company said: “This correspondence made it clear to the supplier that it could continue production with Boeing monitoring for quality. We do not compromise on product safety or quality. Beyond that, we will not comment in the media on our communications with our supplier partners.”
Boeing added that: “Safety is, and always has been, our priority. We are committed to working with our customers, the FAA, other regulatory agencies and stakeholders to ensure the integrity of our production system. Quality is not compromised for schedule.”
“The safety is the number one, especially in our field,” said Alenia Chief Operating Officer Donato Amoroso after seeing the documents.
A long marriage
With a plane that was three years behind schedule, Boeing found itself tackling a problem it had never had before. No other Boeing programme had ever been late.
By the time of the 787’s first commercial flight in October 2011, many of Boeing’s “heritage engineers” had retired. They looked on in dismay. “In 2004,” says Stan Sorscher, “I thought the worst I could imagine was we would be six months late and we would have low dispatch reliability at entry into service”.
“That was my guess in 2004 when I made the bet. And it would be incomprehensible, it was unimaginable that we could be three years late.”
The “Dreamliner” delays strained relationships across the hundreds of suppliers and tens of thousands of individuals working on the airplane.
“It’s like a long marriage,” says Amoroso of his company’s relationship with Boeing. “You have to consider sometimes, you have to face hard times, but at the end of the day, you’re still married with the same partner and then you’re running the same programme.”
So how is the marriage going? “We’re not annulled, but honestly, it’s going very well.”
In 2011, Boeing brought production of the horizontal stabiliser back in house. Earlier this year, Alenia and Boeing restructured their contract, making it what Alenia called “a performance-based business arrangement”.
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