Boeing Co. is trying to beef up the quality inspection staff at its North Charleston plant even as the company disputes reports of shoddy production and safety lapses at the 787 Dreamliner campus.
Some of the plant's former quality technicians who were reassigned to manufacturing duties as part of a reduction in Boeing's "quality assurance" staff will be moved back to their former positions, according to an internal email obtained by The Post and Courier.
The move appears to conflict with Boeing's assertion that fewer inspectors are needed because most production tasks are stable enough that they can be self-inspected by the mechanics who perform them.
Meanwhile, a former flight-readiness technician who is one of the plant's biggest critics filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against Boeing this week in Charleston County court.
Richard Mester was fired in November purportedly for overlooking a bird strike on a 787-10 engine following a test flight. Boeing has not filed a response to the lawsuit.
However, the company disputes reports that its production line is riddled with mistakes, such as: parts and debris left on planes; poorly installed equipment; and planes being rolled out of the assembly building to meet scheduling deadlines even though they still need work.
Carole Murray, the plant's director of quality, told workers in this week's email that the addition of quality inspectors is "to help work through some of the disruption on the field as well as help us with some of our attrition."
Murray did not specify how many inspectors will be added, whether the move is temporary or what type of disruption is taking place at the site. A Boeing spokesman did not immediately respond to questions about the email.
Murray, in her email, defended the plant's safety and performance records, adding the company has compiled years of data so employees "can know our true story — not what you are reading within the newspapers."
Murray said she will be hosting a media day on Tuesday "to ensure the facts are known."
A Boeing spokeswoman said a media day has not been confirmed and that Murray "misunderstood after a conversation about the possibility" of having such an event.
In addition to more company inspectors, the Federal Aviation Administration has stepped up inspections at the Dreamliner campus, according to an internal agency memo.
That document also confirms three safety complaints filed by workers at the plant, including a string of lights left in the tail section of a plane, adding there are "several open compliance and enforcement cases" involving debris left inside planes and misplaced tools at the site.
Mester, who worked at Boeing since October 2013, said in his lawsuit that he reported "numerous incidents" of objects — such as sealant, nuts and bolts and other debris — being left in planes, but Boeing management failed to take any action. He said tools were regularly lost and workers did not have sufficient equipment to do their jobs.
The lawsuit alleges that Mester was fired because of his support for the International Association of Machinists union, which won an election last year to represent flight-line workers at the site. Boeing is contesting the election and the National Labor Relations Board has not ruled on the matter.
Boeing said in a statement that it typically doesn't comment on personnel matters, "however in light of organized attempts to sensationalize and misrepresent these issues, Boeing states unequivocally that there has been no retaliation against any individual based on that individual’s feelings about a union or their alleged complaints about quality or safety."
The company said "claims that there was no bird strike are simply not credible," adding that another IAM supporter "witnessed and confirmed the clear evidence of a bird strike on the engine's external casing."
The production problems mentioned in Mester's lawsuit are similar to those raised in The Post and Courier's report on Boeing's efforts to speed production by letting mechanics inspect their own work.
A program called Multi-Function Process Performer — or MFPP — allows self-inspections on about 90 percent of production tasks. Boeing still requires second-party quality inspections for parts and processes considered critical to flight safety.
At the same time Boeing is relying on mechanics to check their own work, the company is eliminating many of its quality inspectors and assigning them to other jobs.
Boeing has come under intense scrutiny in the wake of two fatal 737 Max crashes that killed 346 people in recent months. A software problem is suspected as the cause of the 737 Max accidents, and the FAA has grounded the planes that are built in Renton, Wash.