The Problem with Boeing


The 787 Dreamliner is a breakthrough in commercial airliner technology. It’s use of advanced composites, Quet Technology Demostrator engines and ergonomically-designed interior promise 20% reduced fuel consumption, significantly quieter performance, and greater passenger comfort. I like the plane.

Today Japan’s two biggest airlines grounded their 787 fleets for safety checks after one was forced to make an emergency landing. These problems are not because of the bold design of the airplane. The problem is Boeing’s over-emphasis on profit.

Originally, Boeing intended to construct the Dreamliner in Washington, but only if the state approved a twenty-year, $3.2 billion package of tax credits. Officials ultimately conceded, but Boeing took its toys and went to play elsewhere anyway when South Carolina lured it across state lines with the promise of a whopping $900 million subsidy package aka taxpayer dollars, and a non-union plant to set up shop in. The National Labor Relations Board accused the company of violating federal labor law by moving aircraft producton out of it’s Seattle facilities to non-union plants. The case was dropped recently after Boeing agreed to raise wages and expand production in Washingston.

Instead of building the complete aircraft from the ground up in the traditional manner, final assembly would employ just 800 to 1,200 people to join completed subassemblies and to integrate systems. Boeing assigned its global subcontractors to do more assembly themselves and deliver completed subassemblies to Boeing for final assembly. This approach was intended to result in a leaner and simpler assembly line and lower inventory with pre-installed systems reducing final assembly time by three-quarters to three days. Although intended to shorten the production process, 787 subcontractors initially had difficulty completing the extra work, because they could not procure the needed parts, perform the subassembly on schedule, or both, leaving remaining assembly work for Boeing to complete as “traveled work”.

I have a very good friend that worked for one of these sub-contractors in Rockford, IL. He’s a brilliant engineer. He told me about the enomous pressure Boeing put on them to complete their work by their deadline. Boeing constantly threatened the sub-contractor with fines. My friend tells me of many, many months working 70-80 hours per week. Getting called into 2am meetings. Careers flamed out because of the stress. Substance abuse ran rampant. Families suffered.

I hope no one gets hurt or killed flying on the 787. I hope the shareholders get handed a big bill to remedy the teething issues plaguing what was once a promising breakthrough design.