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Congress eyes Boeing's North Charleston Dreamliner plant following reports of shoddy work

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Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger (center) testified before a House Committee in Washington, D.C., this week along with Dan Carey of the Allied Pilots Association (left) and Sara Nelson with the Association of Flight Attendants. Andrew Harnik/AP

The retired airline captain best known for his "Miracle on the Hudson" water landing a decade ago says reports of debris left in Boeing Co.'s North Charleston-made 787 Dreamliner jets should worry regulators and the flying public.

"It gives me great concern that with both the 787 (Dreamliner) ... and the Air Force tanker, the KC-46, there was some debris left in some bays of the interior of the aircraft that could possibly chafe wiring and cause future issues," Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger told members of Congress this week.

A House subcommittee on aviation met Wednesday for an update on investigations into a pair of deadly crashes involving Boeing's now-grounded 737 Max planes, which are built in Washington state. But the hearing also delved into reports by The Post and Courier and other media of alleged sloppy production practices at the North Charleston campus.

Boeing, which builds the 787 and the military tanker, has come under intense scrutiny in recent months because of reports alleging shoddy production and safety lapses on the assembly line in North Charleston. Anecdotes of haphazard work and debris left in planes — such as a ladder in the tail section — come as the company has boosted production while reducing quality inspections and allowing mechanics to approve their own work.

Kevin McAllister, Boeing's CEO of commercial airplanes, has said the aerospace giant is "producing the highest levels of quality in our history" at the North Charleston plant.

But Eleanor Norton, a non-voting Congressional delegate who represents the District of Columbia, said she worries the news reports point to a production system that values speed over quality.

"The employees — the whistle-blowers — said that they believed the strong demand for this other plane (787) had pushed Boeing to make quick — to quickly turn out jets as it raced to meet deadlines," Norton said. "So I'm trying to find whether there's something endemic in the culture that we ought to watch out for."

Sharon Pinkerton, senior vice president for policy at aviation advocacy group Airlines For America, told Norton the industry has "no interest in a rapid pace," but the delegate countered that Boeing loses money if production slows.

"It needs to get these planes up in the air," Norton said of Boeing.

Sullenberger said he believes Boeing Co. "is aggressively trying to get to the root of the problems with the manufacturing process so that no foreign objects remain in manufactured aircraft."

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Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., however, questioned whether Boeing has become too reliant on technology and engineering assumptions, pointing to the 2013 lithium-ion battery fires that led to a three-month grounding of Dreamliner aircraft and software malfunctions believed to be responsible for the 737 Max crashes.

"Computers are not humans, they're not human factors, they don't anticipate everything," DeFazio said.

To Sullenberger, who safely landed an Airbus A320 on New York's Hudson River following a bird strike, the most recent accidents involving Boeing's 737 Max planes "should never have happened."

He partly blames a relationship between Boeing and regulators that many say has grown too cozy, with the Federal Aviation Administration allowing the manufacturer to certify many of its own production processes.

"These crashes are demonstrable evidence that our current system of aircraft design and certification has failed us," Sullenberger said.

Boeing this year increased production of its Dreamliner jets to 14 per month, up from a dozen, split between the North Charleston plant and a campus in Everett, Wash. More planes leaving the factory combined with fewer quality inspections has led to repeated production mistakes that can impact aircraft safety, whistle-blowers have told The Post and Courier.

While Boeing recently said it will restore some of the inspection jobs it eliminated, North Charleston workers say problems such as debris left in planes continue on a regular basis.

The company is also in the midst of a year-long battle with flight-line workers who voted in 2018 to join the International Association of Machinists union. Boeing is contesting the vote and won't negotiate with the union while its case is pending with the National Labor Relations Board.

Flight-line workers have told The Post and Courier that management targets them for retribution because of their union support. Boeing denies the claims.

Boeing moved to North Charleston a decade ago and is one of the region's largest employers with about 7,300 workers. In addition to the Dreamliner campus, Boeing's North Charleston operations include a factory that makes interior cabin parts for the plane and a site that designs and builds engine parts.

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

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