Faster production of Boeing Co.'s commercial planes isn't leading to safety lapses, company CEO Dennis Muilenburg said Wednesday, countering claims by airlines and employees that an increased workload is leading to assembly line mistakes that are causing delays.
"I think it's important to note that productivity and profitability, they go hand in hand with safety and quality," Muilenburg told investors during the Jefferies Global Industrials Conference in New York.
"Some are suggesting that productivity and safety are opposing forces, and they're not," Muilenburg said. "We all know that in our factories and in our airplanes, safety, quality and productivity are mutually reinforcing."
The statements are, in part, a reaction to criticism that Boeing rushed its 737 Max plane into service despite flaws that led to a pair of crashes that killed all 346 passengers and crew. The 737 Max has been grounded since March, and some analysts predict it won't return to the skies until next year.
The planemaker's 787 Dreamliner program in North Charleston has also come under fire, with claims that safety is taking a back seat to production schedules and that assembly line mistakes are slowing deliveries.
Boeing fell two Dreamliners short of its 14-per-month goal in July, with the North Charleston campus bringing just four 787s to customers, according to statistics on the All Things 787 website. Boeing's other Dreamliner plant in Everett, Wash., delivered eight 787s last month.
Uresh Sheth, a 787 analyst who runs the website, said 787s built in North Charleston "are taking a long time to get through final assembly, ground and flight testing, and eventually to delivery," adding the "pace of assembly may be more than the Charleston facility can handle ..."
Sheth noted there were 16 planes on the North Charleston flightline this week, with only three having taken their first test flight.
Delays have been noted by some airlines that complete internal surveys Boeing asks its customers to take when planes are delivered. The Post and Courier was provided with more than a dozen surveys and comments from carriers who submitted critiques. It's the first time such private criticism from Boeing’s customers has been made public.
"A lot of Boeing personnel, factory and management, works too much overtime," said KLM Royal Dutch Airlines. "In this customer's opinion, this reflects in quality and the inability to make schedule."
American Airlines said test flights for its Dreamliner were delayed "due to a heavy workload" in the North Charleston campus, disrupting the airline's pilot and flight attendant schedules.
Etihad Airways also complained of delays due to "issues from the factory."
Workers at the North Charleston plant have told The Post and Courier the site's production line is riddled with mistakes, and those problems multiplied when Boeing increased Dreamliner production from 12 to 14 planes per month, split between North Charleston and Everett.
Muilenburg said the rate increase has been successful and is part of Boeing's long-term goal to drive profits to the mid-teens company-wide.
"We're going to continue to drive productivity in our business, not only in our factories but in how we work with our supply chain," he said. "We still have a lot of opportunity ahead of us."
To reach those financial goals, Sheth said, Boeing "can ill afford to have the 787 program stumble at this critical period," adding the company "must look to remediate the issues that are holding back deliveries" in North Charleston.
Muilenburg also on Wednesday repeated his condolences for family members of those killed in the Ethiopian Airlines and Lion Air crashes that led to the 737 Max grounding. He added that Boeing is working to satisfy both regulators and the public that the plane is safe.
"We know it will take some time to rebuild customer confidence," he said.