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After reports of shoddy production at North Charleston Dreamliner plant, Boeing on offensive

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787-10 Dreamliner in assembly at North charleston (copy)

A 787-10 Dreamliner makes its way through the final assembly building at Boeing Co.'s North Charleston campus. File/David Wren/Staff

Boeing Co. on Saturday fired back at a news report that said shoddy production at the aerospace giant's 787 Dreamliner campus in North Charleston is compromising safety, calling the story "skewed and inaccurate."

"As Boeing marks 10 years in North Charleston, our more than 7,000 Boeing South Carolina teammates are producing the highest levels of quality in our history," Kevin McAllister, CEO of Boeing's commercial airplanes division, said in a statement.

But a former quality manager at the plant told The Post and Courier that defective parts regularly disappeared from storage areas where he worked and might have been used on planes.

"I was told to let it go, don't worry about it," said John Barnett, who worked for Boeing for 32 years before retiring in 2017. 

The New York Times published a story Saturday in which current and former Boeing workers said the company's focus on quick turnaround of jets for customers has led to faulty parts being installed in planes and tools and metal shavings left inside aircraft.

The story cites a review of hundreds of emails, corporate documents and federal records, as well as interviews with workers, some of them unnamed. The report also says employee concerns were disregarded by management in "a culture that often valued production speed over quality."

Brad Zaback, vice president and general manager of the Dreamliner program, said in a message to the company's North Charleston workers — obtained by The Post and Courier — that the article "features distorted information that rehashes old stories and rumors that have long ago been put to rest."

For example, The New York Times states Qatar Airways will only buy 787 Dreamliners built at Boeing's Everett, Wash., plant. While airline officials did criticize North Charleston workers in 2014 over delivery delays, Qatar Airways did and continues to take delivery of jets built at the plant.

The North Charleston plant builds all of the mid- and aft-body sections for every Dreamliner, including those that undergo final assembly in Everett.

"We have over 100 Boeing aircraft in our fleet, manufactured in both Everett and (North) Charleston, with many more to join in the coming years as part of our significant long-term investment in the U.S. economy," the Qatar airline said in a statement.

Zaback said Boeing invited The New York Times to visit the North Charleston plant to gather information for its report, but "they declined this invitation."

There have been no Dreamliner crashes since the plane's first delivery in 2011, and more than 800 of the wide-body jets are in airline fleets around the world.

Missing parts

Barnett, the quality manager, said the biggest issue at the North Charleston plant is the lack of control over tools and parts used in production.

"Parts were being taken out of scrap bins and off of shelves," Barnett told The Post and Courier, adding in an email that there were "countless instances where parts were being stolen from one airplane and installed on an incomplete airplane without any documentation, traceability or engineering review."

Barnett said several bathtub fittings used to help attach wings to the fuselage had defective sharp edges that could enhance the likelihood of stress fractures.

"They lost hundreds of them," he said. "I don't know if they're on planes or what."

Barnett filed a whistle-blower complaint in January 2017 with the FAA and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. He retired two months later due to health reasons and after what he termed six years of being "subject to blatant retaliation, unfounded low performance review scores, hostility, denigration, harassment ... among other abuses."

Right to work

Boeing picked North Charleston as the site for its second Dreamliner assembly campus in 2009, largely because of South Carolina's right-to-work laws, which discourage organized labor. South Carolina has the nation's lowest union participation rate at just 2.7 percent of the workforce.

The International Association of Machinists union tried to organize Boeing's North Charleston production workers in 2017 but lost the election by a nearly 3-to-1 margin.

A small group of flight-line workers in North Charleston voted to join the IAM a year ago. Boeing is contesting that election in a bitter fight with the union and the National Labor Relations Board has not made a final ruling.

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The New York Times report did not mention any production problems at the Everett Dreamliner campus, where the IAM has a strong presence and represents production workers.

Among the workers The New York Times interviewed is Rich Mester, a flight-readiness technician at the North Charleston plant who voted for union representation. Boeing fired Mester in November for allegedly failing to notice a bird strike on an engine following a Dreamliner test flight for United Airlines.

Mester told The Post and Courier in December that Boeing never provided any evidence that a bird strike had occurred. The IAM says Mester's firing was due to his union support and has filed a complaint with the NLRB.

In his interview with The New York Times, Mester said he often found debris left in planes being built in North Charleston.

“I’ve found tubes of sealant, nuts, stuff from the build process,” he told the newspaper.

Retaliation and lawsuits

Several of the workers who spoke to The New York Times are suing or previously sued Boeing over what they term as wrongful termination, retaliation and discrimination.

Cynthia Kitchens, a former Boeing quality manager, told the newspaper she was berated and given poor performance reviews after she reported that wire bundles with metal shavings and defective metal parts had been installed on planes.

"Every time I started finding stuff, I was harassed," she said.

Kitchens left Boeing in 2016 and sued the aerospace firm for gender and age discrimination. Her case was dismissed in November, with a federal judge saying she "failed to provide evidence that any of the 'hostility' she experienced while employed at Boeing was due to her age, sex or disability." Kitchens was ordered to pay nearly $2,500 in costs to Boeing.

Liam Wallis, a former Boeing quality manager, said in a lawsuit filed last month that he was fired for blowing the whistle on safety violations at the North Charleston plant.

"Boeing sacrificed compliance with their own policies and regulations put in place for the protection of the public in exchange for the expedited completion of aircraft and profit from the sale of those aircraft,” Wallis said in his lawsuit.

Boeing said Wallis was fired for falsifying aircraft inspection reports, and has asked a federal judge to dismiss the case.

"Wallis was terminated after an internal investigation found that he submitted two falsified documents indicating that he witnessed required aircraft manufacturing tests that had not been completed," the company said in a statement.

'Seamless transition'

The New York Times report comes amid growing scrutiny of Boeing's production practices in the wake of two 737 MAX crashes that killed 346 passengers and crew. The single-aisle 737 MAX, which are built in Washington state, have been grounded by the FAA.

Boeing is scheduled to release its first-quarter earnings on Wednesday, and it is expected the FAA grounding and The New York Times story will be among the issues discussed when executives hold a teleconference with analysts.

Among the concerns reported by The New York Times is Boeing's push to build more Dreamliners at a quicker pace. The company recently increased production to 14 Dreamliners per month, up from 12, split between North Charleston and Everett.

"They’re trying to shorten the time of manufacturing," Mester told the newspaper. "But are you willing to sacrifice the safety of our product to maximize profit?"

Zaback, head of the 787 program, said the move to build 14 planes a month is "the most seamless rate transition in the program’s history" and that the North Charleston plant's "quality metrics show that we are performing at all-time high levels as well."

Zaback called the allegations of poor quality "offensive."

"I see the highest quality airplanes — airplanes that meet rigorous quality inspections and FAA standards — deliver on time on a regular basis from Boeing South Carolina ...," he said.

Reach David Wren at 843-937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_

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