At Boeing factory, airplane manufacturer touts changes since door plug blowout

Written by on June 27, 2024

An Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 Max-9 aircraft grounded at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) in Los Angeles, California, on Monday, Jan. 8, 2024. (Eric Thayer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

(NEW YORK) — For the first time since the Alaska door plug blowout, Boeing brought reporters into the Boeing 737 MAX factory in Renton, Washington. The tightly controlled tour started with an explanation of what led up to the blowout incident and the changes that have happened since January.

According to the explanation from Boeing officials, the fuselage came to Boeing damaged from the supplier. To fix the fuselage, the door plug needed to come off. Before they could get the plug back on properly, the plane needed to be moved to a new outdoor location. The overnight Move Team put the door plug back on to seal the aircraft from the outdoor elements but didn’t install the bolts (that’s not their job, and they expected it to be handled by the other team), the Boeing reps on-site said.

The first team never filled out the paperwork when they removed the door, so it became a perfect storm of the overnight team doing its job to protect the plane from rain, but because there was no paperwork, the next team never put the bolts back on because they didn’t know they were removed, according to company reps.

“Very transparently, the fact that one employee could not fill out paperwork was shocking to all of us,” Elizabeth Lund, chair of Boeing’s Quality Operations Council, told reporters.

During the visit to the Boeing facilities, a company rep said the Alaska Airlines door plug blowout incident has changed how the airplane maker operates, how they look at safety, their culture and the way they do business.

For the frontline workers, it has taken an emotional toll on many of them.

“Yeah, it’s tough here sometimes,” Bill Riley, who has worked with Boeing for 16 years in the Quality department, said. “We’re human like everyone else obviously … And it’s our work that’s being scrutinized and stuff like that.”

“That’s how our team feels; they obviously feel bruised right now. And our job is to listen, and our job is to take time to heal and double-down and focus on exactly what Bill just walked you through, and that’s how we’ll get through this. There’s a lot to be proud of, but there’s a lot of work to do,” Katie Ringgold, vice president and general manager of Boeing’s 737 program, said.

There are 10 stations on the assembly line at the factory, and the safety procedures and production practices at each station have changed. Notably, if a single employee says something is wrong, that employee has the power to stop the entire production line.

Boeing has received 30,000 tips, suggestions, and safety concern reports from employees since the incident. Boeing says they review each one and have made necessary changes when warranted. Lund said company executives call the tips and concerns “gifts.”

Other changes to workflow include:

Each team is required to stand down for one hour each week to discuss concerns or how they can improve.

Boeing has drastically slowed production. The Federal Aviation Administration caps Boeing at 38 planes per month, but Boeing is only producing roughly 20 737s per month until they are confident the factory can handle more.

The factory visited by ABC has an unusually high number of new employees because so many longtime employees left during the COVID pandemic, Boeing reps explained. Many new and senior employees are being retrained, and all new hires get at least two additional weeks of training than they would have had pre-Jan. 5.

Production manuals are being simplified so instructions are easier to digest and easier for those who speak English as a second language, Boeing reps said.

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