Rare glimpse into Boeing 737 Max production facility amid turmoil

As Boeing faces multiple whistleblower complaints over safety, the company recently gave special access in a tightly-controlled media tour to its 737 Max production this week.

The rare glimpse aimed to show changes the company says are being made in real time after a door panel blew out on an Alaska Airlines flight in January.

“I believe the steps we’re taking today will make us an even better company,” Boeing Senior Vice President Elizabeth Lund said during the tour. 

Boeing said missing paperwork was part of the problem regarding the Alaska Airlines incident. The plane left the factory without the bolts holding the door panel properly installed, according to Lund.

“We believe that plug was opened without correct the paperwork,” Lund told the room. “We believe it was a non-compliance to our processes at that point by having the plug opened without the correct documentation and paperwork.” She explained that a move crew closed the door when they were moving the plane outside after finally assembly but were unaware the bolts had been removed because of the lack of paperwork.

It is this detail that led National Transportation and Safety Board to sanction Boeing for breaking an agreement and disclosing details that were not public about the agency’s investigation into the Alaska Airlines incident. 

In a letter sent to Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun Thursday from Timothy LeBaron, director of the NTSB Office of Aviation Safety, LeBaron said that Lund disclosed “non-public investigative information and made unsubstantiated speculations about possible causes” of the door blowout during a news conference Lund held Tuesday.

In a separate statement, the NTSB noted that both actions are prohibited according to an agreement that Boeing had signed that provided the aircraft maker with party status to the investigation.

“As a party to many NTSB investigations over the past decades, few entities know the rules better than Boeing,” the NTSB said in its statement. 

In his letter, LeBaron said that “given Boeing’s unauthorized release” of “investigative information,” the NTSB was “imposing restrictions on Boeing’s participation in the investigation.”   

In a statement, Boeing apologized, saying “As we continue to take responsibility and work transparently, we conducted an in-depth briefing on our Safety & Quality Plan and shared context on the lessons we have learned from the January 5 accident. We deeply regret that some of our comments, intended to make clear our responsibility in the accident and explain the actions we are taking, overstepped the NTSB’s role as the source of investigative information. We apologize to the NTSB and stand ready to answer any questions as the agency continues its investigation.”

Boeing said it’s making changes to workforce training to better prepare new employees while raising the skill level of workers hired since the pandemic.

Katie Ringold, the Boeing 737 program’s vice president and general manager, acknowledged that the company has work to do, but expressed confidence in the quality of the aircraft coming off the line at the plant.

“We are rolling up our sleeves and are ready to do that work,” she said.

Boeing also said it is simplifying design plans and processes to make them easier to follow, along with inspecting components like fuselages before they are delivered in an effort to reduce product defects entering its factories and has slowed production to ensure quality.

During the media tour of the 737 Max production line, Boeing officials talked about the ability employees have to halt work if they see a problem.

“I feel like people are a lot more comfortable to speak up,” said Dave Prigg, an employee.

Meanwhile, another whistleblower has stepped forward and filed a complaint with the FAA. Airplane mechanic Richard Cuevas says he witnessed substandard manufacturing and maintenance processes on the 787 forward bulkhead. He was contracted by fuselage manufacturer Spirit Aerosystems.

Spirit and Boeing say they looking into the claims. Boeing said they had previously reviewed the allegations, but engineering analysis determined the issues raised did not present a safety concern. The aerospace giant says they will review the new documentation provided by Cuevas and will “thoroughly investigate.”

The FAA told CBS News that from Jan. 5 through May, the agency received 126 Boeing whistleblower reports. In all of 2023, the FAA received 11.

In March, Boeing told lawmakers that it would take up to a year to fix an engine issue on all 737 Max jets.

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