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FAA keeping close watch on production issues at Boeing's SC plant

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Dreamliners make their way through the final assembly building at Boeing Co.'s North Charleston campus in this file photo. Federal regulators have increased scrutiny of the plant following reports of shoddy production practices. File/Wade Spees/Staff

The Federal Aviation Administration has stepped up inspections at Boeing Co.'s campus in North Charleston, according to an agency memo and workers at the site, but the aerospace giant's executives say that doesn't mean regulators are more focused on the plant in the wake of reports alleging shoddy production.

The FAA in recent weeks has conducted at least two unannounced site visits to look for foreign object debris — like misplaced tools and airplane parts — at the plant that builds 787 Dreamliner commercial planes, a worker with knowledge of the visits told The Post and Courier. The worker did not want to be identified for fear of reprisal.

More recently, workers say, the FAA is investigating loose cabin windows found on aircraft inside the assembly building and is continuing to investigate titanium slivers found near electrical wiring in some planes.

Boeing executives said there is nothing unusual in the FAA's recent activities at the site. The agency has employees assigned to the plant and sometimes sends outside staff to conduct investigations.

"They do unannounced visits all the time," said Ernesto Gonzalez-Beltran, Boeing's vice president of quality for commercial airplanes. Gonzalez-Beltran said the on-site FAA inspectors "are continuously monitoring and assessing our operations."

Carole Murray, director of quality for Boeing's 787 program, said she is unaware of any increased scrutiny and the North Charleston campus has a "great relationship" with the FAA.

"We love when they show up unannounced because we want to be good at what we do," Murray said. 

The reports of FAA scrutiny follow a pair of deadly crashes of Boeing’s 737 Max planes, which are built in Washington state. Boeing has been under siege in recent weeks, with a flurry of media reports questioning the company's safety record and production practices.

A recent internal FAA memo — first reported by The New York Times — shows the regulator has, since September, confirmed three safety complaints filed by workers at the plant, including a string of lights left in the tail section of a plane.

The agency, according to the memo and the Times report, also is investigating claims that an employee felt pressured to sign off on a plane's airworthiness this spring. 

The memo also states there are "several open compliance and enforcement cases" involving debris left inside planes and misplaced tools at the site.

An FAA spokesman confirmed the memo for The Post and Courier but would not comment on its contents or say whether the North Charleston plant is getting special scrutiny.

"Safety is the FAA’s top priority," agency spokesman Lynn Lunsford told The Post and Courier in a statement. "We thoroughly investigate whistle-blower complaints and take action if the allegations are substantiated."

In addition to watching the North Charleston plant more closely, the FAA recently issued two airworthiness directives to mandate 787 repairs Boeing previously recommended to customers.

The 737 Max accidents killed 346 people and have raised questions about Boeing’s coziness with the FAA, which has turned over many of its airplane certification duties to the aerospace firm as it ramps up production to keep pace with rival Airbus in the world market.

A committee of the U.S. House of Representatives will hold a hearing May 15 on the 737 Max, which has been grounded worldwide, and the FAA's aircraft certification program.

Gonzalez-Beltran denied the relationship between Boeing and its regulator has gotten too close.

"Sometimes we have been on tours of our own Boeing facilities and we cannot even provide transportation for them because they abide by the rules and they are very strict about those," he said. "I cannot even buy them a sandwich."

Workers at the North Charleston plant told The Post and Courier many of the systemic production problems stem from a program that lets mechanics inspect their own work without a second set of eyes making sure no mistakes are made.

That program — called Multi-Function Process Performer, or MFPP — is part of Boeing’s “first-pass quality” initiative designed to hasten production while cutting down on errors. Work is supposed to be done right the first time, and Boeing says it usually is.

Work that falls under the MFPP program now makes up about 90 percent of a plane’s production, workers say. Mistakes that aren't being caught on the assembly line, they say, include: debris being left in sensors that measure air speed while a plane is in flight; surplus rags and bolts left in planes; loose cabin seats; and unsecured galley equipment.

One worker said planes have been moved out of final assembly with cut tires, cooling fluids that haven’t been serviced, gears that haven’t been tested and hydraulics that aren’t fully functional.

While most of the mistakes are eventually caught before a plane is turned over to an airline, workers say they worry about what’s being missed.

Boeing also is eliminating hundreds of quality assurance inspectors throughout its operations, including about 100 in North Charleston, assigning those workers to other jobs.

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

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