Accidents Spotlight Issue of Boeing Quality Control

Times Staff Writer

Employees on Boeing's aircraft assembly lines are working 12 hours a day and seven days a week in many cases, attempting to catch up on delivery delays that have infuriated airlines around the world.

But a concern is growing among industry safety experts and throughout the aviation community that the Boeing Co. may be pushing too hard, that it is making some sloppy errors that are not expected from a company held to be one of the nation's premier manufacturing companies.

"I don't sense a crisis at Boeing, but I do sense a series of tragic and unfortunate incidents," said John H. Enders, president of the Flight Safety Foundation, a nonprofit organization funded by airlines, manufacturers and others. "Appropriate corrective action is being taken . . . but not as quickly as the public would like."

Indeed, the apparent in-flight structural failure of a United Airlines 747 after taking off from Hawaii on Friday was only the latest case that has focused worldwide attention on Boeing products.

Boeing has not been held responsible for any of the incidents, and current problems at the company's aircraft plants clearly have nothing to do with what befell the 19-year-old jet that had to return to Honolulu after a large section of its fuselage was torn away in flight resulting in the loss of nine passengers.

But the incident occurred at a bad time for Boeing.

In the past year, the company has been hit by reports of mis- wired safety equipment on its jets, a half-dozen cases of airframe structural failure during flights and growing production problems that have forced delays in deliveries.

"We are very angry," Lufthansa executive board Chairman Heinz Ruhnau said in a recent interview about the three-to-six-month delays in deliveries of new 747s. "It is going to cost us a lot of money."

Even some Boeing employees are now complaining that they see quality control slipping at their company, which has gained world dominance of the commercial aircraft industry in large measure through a reputation for quality and value. During 1988, Boeing grabbed two-thirds of the Western world's orders for commercial jets.

"The growth really ran away," said Richard Ferguson, a Boeing engineer who retired earlier this month. "The new people coming in are not receiving the guidance, help and direction that they would receive normally. They are running more on their own. That allows mistakes to be made."

Calls Training Inadequate

One Boeing hourly worker with more than a decade of experience put it more bluntly. "I think the quality stinks," she said, asking that her name be withheld. She was recently promoted to a toolmaking job, but considers her training for it inadequate.

"They gave me a job that I wasn't qualified for," she said. "I don't even read blueprints. It required things I had never done--drilling holes and measuring things."

Although Boeing executives acknowledge that the company is experiencing growth problems in a number of areas, they believe that each incident is isolated and not indicative of a systemic erosion of discipline.

"A number of things have been put together and collected in a bucket and some conclusions drawn," Boeing Executive Vice President Philip M. Condit said in a recent interview. "But they don't necessarily--and they frequently don't--relate to each other."

Condit said Boeing was incorrectly blamed initially for the crash of a Pan American World Airways 747 jetliner in December in Lockerbie, Scotland. The crash is now believed to have been caused by a bomb. A problem with mis-wiring at Boeing was also blamed at first for the crash of a British Midlands 737, but mis-wiring has now been ruled out as a cause.

Uncovers 'Shortcomings'

Still, Condit admitted that he has uncovered "shortcomings in the system" and that he is "not satisfied" with Boeing quality. A few months ago, Dean Thornton, president of the Boeing commercial airplane subsidiary, went even further in a Times interview, saying that quality had slipped a bit.

"We're being burned by our own success," Thornton said last November. "We've got too much on our plate. We've got too many inexperienced workers--green peas, we call them--and not enough old-timers who know how to do things. We're working too much overtime. We're stretched right now."

Since Thornton made those statements, Boeing has confirmed that at least 10 of its 757 and 767 jetliners delivered to airlines and used in passenger operations had improperly wired fire extinguishers in the cargo hold.

The Boeing image began suffering after it was disclosed that a faulty repair done by Boeing on a bulkhead of a Japan Air Lines 747 had caused a crash in 1985, resulting in 517 deaths. Since then, a series of structural failures has underscored concern about Boeing jetliners.

Last month, an engine fell off one of Piedmont Airlines' Boeing 737s in an incident caused by metal fatigue in a bolt. In December, a 14-inch hole ripped open in the fuselage of an Eastern Airlines 727 in flight. In September, an American Airlines 727 landed on its belly when metal fatigue prevented the landing gear doors from opening. Most notably, a large section of the fuselage of an Aloha Airlines 737 flew off last April, killing a flight attendant.

Evidence Mounting

The series of structural failures and the JAL incident raised concerns about older Boeing aircraft, but evidence has been mounting of quality problems on current production aircraft.

British Airways last year complained to Boeing about, among other things, "missing fasteners, missing parts, cracks, and rivets fitted the wrong way." The memo alleged that the airline's inspectors had found "instances of these on every aircraft" it had recently bought from Boeing.

In December, Boeing disclosed the wiring problems and the Federal Aviation Administration ordered sweeping inspections of Boeing jets.

The wiring mistakes were not blamed on workers alone. Rather, Condit acknowledged, the design itself permitted the errors to be made in the first place. They occurred on the factory floor, he said, and went undetected during automated checkouts of the aircraft wiring system.

As a result, Boeing is reassessing other areas where its designs may allow workers to err. It is reconsidering how it performs electrical checks. It has revised its procedures and is making a general effort to improve quality, Condit said.

"In the design of airplanes, you try very hard to make the design Murphy-proof," Condit said. "You look at it every way you know how to say, 'Can this thing be hooked up incorrectly?' But that's a continuing effort."

Condit insists that Boeing aircraft are safe. "The product we're producing is of high quality. If you look at the safety statistics, we keep getting better."

But as Boeing attempts to cure its problems, even isolated ones, it is also facing a massive production buildup. By mid-1990, it will be turning out aircraft at the rate of more than one a day or 408 per year, a 28% increase from today's already high rate.

Demands on Workers

The schedules are putting heavy overtime demands on workers, and that is hurting quality, said officials at the company's Aerospace Machinists union.

"If you are forced to work 12 hours a day, seven days a week, your quality is going to slip up," said union agent Bob Ripley at Boeing's plant in the Seattle suburb of Everett, where 747s and 767s are assembled. "We are getting a lot of complaints (from workers) about quality.

"There are 14,000 hourly workers up here at Everett," he said. "They are stacking people up. It is people standing on top of people. I feel a lot of tension. Up here, it is mass confusion."

Even scientists and engineers are affected by the overtime demands, said Dan Mahoney, general counsel of the Seattle Professional Engineering Employees Assn., another union representing 26,600 Boeing workers. "Quality has to go down, there is no question about it," he said.

Although Boeing officials take exception to such assessments, the company was forced earlier this month to stop the production lines in Everett because so much work was being done out of sequence, Condit said. That occurred because certain tasks had fallen behind schedule.

Agrees to Limits

Boeing is trying to cut overtime and last year agreed to limit each worker's overtime to no more than 200 hours per calendar quarter, roughly 15 hours a week. But during production crunches, many workers still find themselves working 12-hour days for long stretches without weekends off, workers and union officials say. Much of the work is physically rigorous, putting additional stresses on workers.

"It is an area we need to do better in," Condit said. On average, Boeing workers are putting in 8.8 hours per week of overtime, roughly 22% above a standard week.

The effort to drive down overtime will depend on increasing the efficiency of the existing work force and hiring new workers.

So far in 1989, the company has added 1,500 new employees at its Seattle area plants. And during the past several years, the Boeing commercial operation has doubled its work force. "They are coming in groups of 75 or 100 at a time, two or three times a week," said one tube shop worker at Everett. "It is astronomical, the number of people coming in."

Boeing insists that it has not lowered its standards, but union officials allege that the new workers are undertrained.

"They are bringing in employees who don't know . . . (anything) about the jobs they are doing," said Ripley, who spent 13 years as a machinist at Boeing before becoming a union agent.

Workers Reassigned

One practice involves "emergency classification," in which higher-grade employees are assigned to lower-grade work in areas behind schedule. "It takes them a while to learn what they are doing," Ripley said.

In other cases, new hires are being brought in with minimal knowledge of aircraft work, though they are required to spend about five weeks at a vocational school that teaches the basics of riveting, drilling and wiring, among other skills. They are derisively known on the line as "five-week wonders."

But Condit said Boeing is going to great lengths to recruit new workers with an average of more than five years of aircraft-related work experience, which is unchanged from its hiring practices of five years ago.

In some cases, the company is hiring hourly workers in Southern California and Georgia and paying moving expenses to resettle them in Seattle, an extraordinary measure for non-professional employees.

Even with those special efforts, though, it was inevitable that the average seniority levels would decline as Boeing built up its work force. Such cycles have occurred through the company's history.

But Ferguson, the retired Boeing engineer, believes that the sharp downturn in the aircraft industry in 1970 and 1971, in which Boeing's Seattle area unemployment plummeted from 101,544 to 38,069 inflicted a permanent problem on the company.

Lost Workers

"They lost a large chunk of the people who today would be middle-aged," he said. "They would be the lead people going into supervision and technical roles. I call it the missing generation of people in their 40s and 50s."

Another long-term issue is whether the new workers have the same level of discipline and pride as past generations in their work on products that millions of people depend on for safe public transportation.

"If you are in an industry where your action affects life, there is a duty of care involved," said Enders, the president of the Flight Safety Foundation. "The idea of craft is that you develop an intense pride in your work. I don't know if you find a lot of that attitude in people's work anymore."

Enders worries that Boeing, along with others in the air transport industry, cannot isolate themselves from the pervasive problems of society, such as illiteracy, drug abuse and obsession with materialism.

Boeing officials insist that the quality of their airliners is excellent, and they are increasingly angry about the negative image they are getting.

Ben A. Cosgrove, Boeing vice president for engineering, recalls that a Boeing worker was recently in the hospital and was chided by doctors because of the company's quality problems.

Cosgrove said he told the worker, "Listen, when Boeing makes a mistake, the newspapers put it on the front page. When a newspaper makes a mistake, it's buried inside. But when a doctor makes a mistake, it's buried."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
65°