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Airline surveys point to ongoing production problems at Boeing's SC plant

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KLM 100th anniversary livery

KLM Royal Dutch Airlines was critical of production mistakes and quality lapses on this 787-10 Dreamliner built at Boeing's North Charleston campus to celebrate the carrier's 100th anniversary. Mike Cassidy/Provided

Some of the airlines buying 787 Dreamliners built at Boeing Co.'s North Charleston campus are complaining about "unacceptable" production mistakes and poor quality, and analysts say the criticism points to issues deep within the aerospace giant's culture.

While workers at the Dreamliner factory have previously reported quality lapses, this is the first time such private criticism from Boeing's customers has been made public. 

"Boeing Commercial Airplanes clearly has a systemic problem in designing, producing and delivering airplanes," said Scott Hamilton, an aerospace analyst and editor of Leeham News and Analysis.

The airline complaints are included as part of internal surveys Boeing asks carriers to complete when a plane is delivered. Not all airlines participate and results sometimes can be skewed by such things as supplier issues that are out of Boeing's control.

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, in a statement, said its customers "continue to express great confidence in the 787."

"Boeing and our customers demonstrate the highest standards of safety and quality, which is evident by the 787 Dreamliner’s excellent record of safety and reliability in-service," the company said.

The Post and Courier was provided with copies of more than a dozen surveys and comments from recent 787 deliveries at the North Charleston campus.

While Boeing received an overall average score of 3.5 out of 5, customer comments included in the surveys provide insight into the types of manufacturing problems workers at the site have reported to the newspaper and other media in recent months.

For example, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines called the factory's quality control "way below acceptable standards" for a 787-10 delivered at North Charleston in June. The plane included a special livery to celebrate the carrier's 100th anniversary.

KLM noted several issues, including a loose seat, missing or wrongly installed cotter pins, nuts not fully tightened, an unsecured fuel line clamp and several unspecified missing parts.

"Who looks at quality in this facility," KLM asked, adding the airline "is worried for the next deliveries."

"There are serious doubts about quality and Boeing's ability to deliver on time," the carrier stated.

Those privately expressed concerns clashed with KLM's public tweet introducing the plane it nicknamed "De Oranjebloesem."

"We're very happy to have this beauty on board," the Dutch airline tweeted.

'Cut to the quick'

Richard Aboulafia, a vice president and aerospace analyst at the Teal Group in Fairfax, Va., said the KLM criticism "certainly isn't typical, and it certainly is something they (Boeing) need to look into quickly, particularly with other personnel and regulatory issues at the plant."

The Department of Justice recently issued subpoenas to several people at the North Charleston campus as federal investigators are looking into reports of shoddy production and quality control problems.

Those issues came to light following a pair of fatal crashes involving Boeing's 737 Max planes, which are built in Renton, Wash. Those accidents involving Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines jets killed all 346 passengers and crew. All 737 Max planes have been grounded worldwide since March.

Hamilton said the 737 Max problems and quality issues in North Charleston are at least partly the result of budget cuts implemented first by former CEO Jim McNerney and now his successor, Dennis Muilenburg.

"The sense that I've had is that they've cut to the quick in the name of shareholder value, and their cost-cutting has gone too deep," he said. "Therefore, you get these production and quality control issues."

A Bloomberg report in June drew attention to that cost-cutting with news that Boeing relied on temporary workers making as little as $9 an hour to develop and test software used in commercial airplanes.

The concerns aren't limited to North Charleston or the 787, with similar issues raised in Everett, Wash., where Boeing also builds Dreamliners and the KC-46 tanker for the Air Force. The military has twice halted deliveries of the tanker because Boeing did not meet quality standards.

737 Max planes at Renton (copy)

Parked 737 Max jets crowd the available space at Boeing Co.'s Renton, Wash., manufacturing site. File/King5 News Seattle/Provided

That points to wide-ranging problems embedded in Boeing's airplane programs, Hamilton said.

"The Max is the second of Boeing's last four commercial airplane programs to have been grounded," he said, referring to a series of battery fires that took all 787s out of service in 2013. "Three of the last four programs have been late and all four have been over budget."

Quality, workload issues

A trio of carriers — United Air Lines, Hainan Airlines and China Eastern Airlines — gave the plant above-average marks, including one perfect score. United cited "excellent quality and customer experience" for three deliveries of 787-10s in February and March.  

Even in cases where the survey responses were positive, some problems were noted.

United, for example, said it found 20 production issues that hadn't been documented by Boeing when it inspected a 787-10 in April. The Chicago-based carrier also found two dented panels that delayed a test flight. United gave the delivery a 4.86 score.

Etihad 787-10 (copy)

An Etihad Airways 787-10 Dreamliner sits at Boeing Co.'s assembly campus in North Charleston. The Abu Dhabi carrier said it received "very poor and inadequate support" during a recent delivery. File/Mike Cassidy/Provided

Other carriers weren't so generous.

Etihad said three of its Dreamliner deliveries were delayed because the planes still needed work after they left the assembly building. The Abu Dhabi carrier also noted poor communication from Boeing's production staff.

"Consequently, we had to find out the true status of the airline on our own and the hard way," the airline stated in its survey, summing up the delivery as "very bad and not good for Boeing and Etihad."

American Airlines said it noticed problems with a Boeing program that lets mechanics inspect about 90 percent of their own work, eliminating a second quality control review in order to speed production.

American said problems not caught in the final assembly building created a heavy workload on the flight line that delayed test flights and kept Boeing from meeting its schedule commitments.

Ross Feinstein, spokesman for American Airlines, said the carrier has confidence in the 42 787s currently in its fleet and has purchased another 47 Dreamliners.

"American monitors the manufacturing process of our aircraft on-site, and inspects each aircraft from start to finish," Feinstein said. "Prior to taking delivery of any aircraft, our team conducts additional inspections. Lastly, once we take delivery of an aircraft, it is flown to one of our maintenance bases for additional inspections, prior to any aircraft entering commercial service."

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Singapore Airlines, the launch customer for the 787-10 that's built exclusively in North Charleston, said numerous production discrepancies delayed a delivery in April, and the plane had several missing pieces and a scratched flight deck window that had to be replaced. 

"It doesn't help that resources were stretched, resulting in slow rectification of these issues," Singapore Airlines stated. "Compared to experience on previous 787 deliveries, this was hardly smooth."

KLM, in its review, said it also observed an overworked Boeing staff that's trying to keep up with a production schedule that calls for 14 Dreamliners to be built every month, split between the aerospace firm's North Charleston and Everett, Wash., facilities.

"A lot of Boeing personnel, factory and management, works way too much overtime," the carrier stated. "In this customer's opinion this reflects in quality and the inability to make schedule."

KLM also said too much work was left for the flight line to complete because the plane wasn't finished when it left final assembly.

"There must have been at least a dozen changes since (the) aircraft was outside," the airline said. "There seems always to be a reason why schedules are not being met."

Feedback 'important'

Boeing said the surveys are an important part of the transparency it has established with customers and regulators throughout the assembly and delivery processes.

"We listen to that confidential feedback, and use it to evolve and adapt our processes as necessary," the company said in a statement. "We deeply value teammate and customer input as we strive to improve future deliveries."

Boeing added that all of its airplanes "are inspected and must meet rigorous safety and quality standards prior to delivery."

Carole Murray, the North Charleston plant’s director of quality, told workers in an email in May that the site planned to add quality inspectors after previously reassigning many of them to other tasks. Boeing has said it plans to eliminate about 100 inspectors in North Charleston and 900 at its plants in Washington state.

Documents provided to The Post and Courier indicate some of the production problems identified previously by workers are still occurring.

Union Workers Fired (copy)

Boeing employees stand near the new Boeing 787-10 Dreamliner at the company's facility in South Carolina after conducting its first test flight at Charleston International Airport in North Charleston on March 31, 2017. File/Mic Smith/AP

For example, flight line inspectors recently found four work lights left in the tail section of a Singapore Airlines 787-10. That follows earlier reports that a string of lights and a ladder were left in the tail section of another plane.

In another case, a 787-10 built for Eva Air had loose bolts on its horizontal stabilizer and engine fan casing and bags of screws were found in the headrest storage compartment.

Hamilton said the issues outlined in recent surveys are "consistent with the stories that have been told about North Charleston pretty much since it opened."

"It was pretty well-known within the industry that quality control at North Charleston was problematic," he said.

Hamilton doesn't think that's likely to change as Boeing focuses on fixing software problems on its 737 Max planes and getting them back into service.

Boeing is counting on revenue from the 787 program to help offset losses from 737 Max planes that can't be delivered or flown, and there are no plans to slow Dreamliner production to solve any problems on the wide-body's assembly lines.

"We feel confident in the production rates that we've laid out," Muilenburg told analysts during a July 24 earnings call. "With the 787 currently running at 14 a month, we're continuing to gain efficiency on that line, and that's allowing us to be even more competitive in the marketplace."

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