Interview: The former Boeing union president

Former Boeing engineer and union president Cynthia Cole speaks out about her concerns with the 787 “Dreamliner”.

Cynthia Cole said she "disagreed with the whole business model for the 787" [Al Jazeera]

Cynthia Cole worked at Boeing as a Test Engineer from 1978 to 2010. She was president of the union for Boeing technical employees and engineers, SPEEA, from April 2006 to March 2010. At that time, SPEEA represented around 25,000 Boeing employees, many of whom were developing the “Dreamliner”. Below are extended extracts from an interview she gave to Al Jazeera in early 2014.

I have to say that until the last few years, I truly enjoyed my whole career at the Boeing Company.

For me, the biggest change came with the McDonnell Douglas merger. All the processes and procedures that we had as a heritage Boeing Company were slowly changing and becoming the McDonnell Douglas process or the McDonnell Douglas procedure. 

I felt it was wrong. I felt it was going to take the company in the wrong direction. 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.

The 787 business model

I disagreed with the whole business model for the 787. In fact, I was at Renton Town Hall… – I’m president of the union – to observe. One of the engineering managers on the 787 was doing this Renton town hall [meeting] and he’s addressing all these questions.

I raised my hand to speak. The person with the microphone gave me the microphone. I said, “Well, you know, here’s the problem with the 787 model. We’re turning a bunch of companies that were vendors and suppliers into partners. The problem with being a partner is there’s only one Boeing Company in the whole world. They’re not the Boeing Company or we wouldn’t need to be the Boeing Company. No one does engineering the way Boeing does. These people, these companies that are now the partners, they’re not Boeing, and they’re not doing the job to the standards that we would expect because they aren’t the Boeing Company. That’s the bottom line.” 

The people in the audience at that time, they cheered because it resonated with all the engineers in that room.


‘You’ve got to do something’

I would be out in the public, and Id be at various stores, and Boeing employees who actually worked on the 787 would come up to me. They recognised who I was and said, “Youve got to do something”. 

I think there was a lot of pressure to get the programme done on schedule, and engineering was no longer in charge.

by - Cynthia Cole

Of course, I’m thinking, oh, great. What am I supposed to do? They come up to me and say, “My supervisor’s not listening to me. I know about problems on the 787 that aren’t being addressed. My supervisor just says, ‘I can’t talk to you about this because I’ve got to keep this part of the programme on schedule. And if I have to stop to deal with what you think is a problem, then I’m going to be in trouble.'”

I actually went to Everett a couple of times and toured the facilities and talked to people on the factory floor. They’re all singing the same song. That’s when I started asking for a meeting where I was talking to Boeing managers. 

That was unheard of, for someone on a programme to talk to someone who’s not on their programme and to voice concerns and to say that they’re not being listened to. That was just not the Boeing Company that I’d worked for all these years. It was raising red flags in my mind.

At first, I didn’t believe it. When a few people came up to me, I thought, okay, maybe they just don’t get along with their supervisor. I just kind of blew a few of them off and said, “Okay. Well, I’ll look into that and do what I can.” 

Then, the more I heard it, the more I thought, “Oh, my, gosh”. It wasn’t the same person. This was all different people. I’d get email on my Boeing email system saying, “I’d really like to talk with you”, or “I see problems on the programme and no one’s addressing them”. 


That’s when I started asking to have these meetings. My idea was one top engineering manager just to stand in front of a group of SPEEA members who were engineers and technical employees on the programme, and then have somebody from HR in front with a flip-board and just write down everything they say.

I think the first meeting went for an hour and a half. The poor little HR guy standing there, he just wrote and wrote and wrote. 

I mean, I’m president of the entire union. I’m not being approached by members on other programmes. It’s only this programme, the 787, that I’m having all of these people come up to me. They’re all SPEEA members. They’re all either engineers or technical employees. And so I’m believing now that there’s something going on. They’re not being listened to. I think it has something to do with this outsourcing and having all these partners take over the work.

Then, I went to the hangar in Everett and found out that a lot of the work that was coming in from the partners wasn’t being done to the standards that they were expecting, so the quality assurance people would not allow it on the plane. And so as the plane was being built, these things would have to be fixed. It was piling up.

I think there was a lot of pressure to get the programme done on schedule, and engineering was no longer in charge.

The business model was in charge, and the business model of partners and outsourcing.

These are engineering programmes. This is why these planes fly and why they work, because of engineers and engineering. Not because of the business model, and not because of the finance structure, and not because of all these other hoops and whistles, and the stock price, and the board of directors, whatever you want to call it. 

It’s the engineers; it’s the engineering. If you don’t do that right, you haven’t got anything.

Proprietary information

So if a part is a vendor part, then Boeing owns it. Boeing has all the drawings. They know everything about that part. They get everything. 

If it’s a partner, then I was over at the customer service centre and that’s where some SPEEA members were saying, “We’re kind of concerned because some of these parts that come from the partners, they’re giving us their drawings and they’re proprietary. We’ll see their box and we’ll see what goes into their box and what comes out of their box, but we don’t know what’s in the box. It’s just marked proprietary.” 

It’s marked proprietary because these partners, they own it, and it’s their proprietary part.

If you want to troubleshoot a problem on an aircraft and if you’re poring through the drawings to figure it out and you think the problem is in that box, you’re not going to know.

They were feeling that their hands were tied because they said, “You know, we’ve got pieces of this aircraft that we really don’t know a whole lot about. We can’t do our normal job.” That concerned them.

As a Boeing employee, I would have more confidence in the aircraft and feel better about it if we had done our normal Boeing processes. It’s the unknown of some of these pieces that we don’t really have full control over.

Boeing says it does not compromise on product safety or quality for schedule or any other reason.

Read Boeing’s full responses

Source: Al Jazeera