Aircraft makers, regulators check titanium parts on 787 Dreamliner; Boeing cites reforms
The discovery is the latest evidence that the aircraft maker is still trying to fine-tune its manufacturing operations, despite a nearly two-year push by chief executive David Calhoun to bolster Boeing’s reputation for making quality jets. In addition, the Federal Aviation Administration is investigating Boeing’s quality control. The company admitted that it had not solved the problem of leftover junk from the production process, such as two empty tequila mini-bottles found on a new Air Force One jet under construction in September.
A Boeing spokesman said the company was making progress improving production and raising its own standards despite operational constraints. “We have strengthened our focus on quality and constantly encourage all members of our team and supply chain to raise any issues that need attention,” the spokesperson said. “When issues are raised, it is a sign that these efforts are working.”
Boeing has faced a number of production issues over the years, along with two 737 MAX crashes in late 2018 and early 2019, prompting US air-safety regulators to conduct oversight. According to people close to the company, the crisis seems to be filling itself: Over the past two years, Boeing engineers and regulators have been looking for problems. New issues that are found invite more investigation, and things added to fix.
18 letter from the agency and people familiar with the investigation, Boeing’s 787 woes come as the FAA investigates a series of alleged quality-control flaws in Boeing’s commercial-airplane unit. The agency claimed that Boeing allowed unqualified personnel to sign quality checks or otherwise failed to comply with company or FAA guidelines.
2 letter seen by Businesshala, Boeing has disputed some of the FAA’s claims and told the agency that an enforcement action was not required, as the company works on improvements. A Boeing spokesperson declined to comment on the investigation, but said the company is committed to cooperating with the FAA to strengthen compliance and safety.
The Dreamliner’s new problem and FAA investigation have not been reported before. A Boeing spokesperson said the titanium issue was discovered as part of an ongoing audit by the company, as the company improves its quality-management system.
Boeing and regulators have determined that the new titanium issue does not pose an immediate safety risk to the aircraft currently flying, people familiar with the matter said. The company immediately repaired two undelivered planes, which would have been grounded because they had a large number of vulnerable parts, they said. People familiar with the company’s plans said the company expects to hand out the wide-body jet in November sooner, later than previously estimated.
Boeing has been working to resolve problems with the 787 Dreamliner since the end of 2020, after discovering small gaps between sections of the aircraft that could lead to premature fatigue.
The agency has not signed off on Boeing’s plan to inspect the new 787 before delivery. In addition, the 737 MAX production is closely monitored by regulators after two MAX crashes. The crashes, which claimed 346 lives, were blamed in large part on Boeing’s faulty design of a new flight-control system that put the jet in a fatal nosebleed. In late 2019, the FAA revoked Boeing’s right to conduct routine safety checks before delivering new MAX jets. A spokesman for the agency said regulators will retain the authorization “until the FAA is satisfied.”
FAA officials have been encouraged by Boeing’s efforts to address production and culture problems, but are not satisfied with the company’s pace, people familiar with the agency’s position said. In addition to a recent letter about quality control, the FAA sent Boeing a letter dated September 6 detailing how the company is overdue in addressing 48 ways various aircraft do not comply with federal standards. According to the letter, the issues pertain to items including paint thickness, windshield-bond strength and landing-gear valves.
Boeing has focused its attention on addressing the backlog more quickly and has approved more than a quarter of the items cited in the FAA letter, a person familiar with the matter said.
The FAA’s production investigations have also focused on avoiding factory debris being released inside finished airplanes. By early 2020, debris was found in about two-thirds of the newly built 737 MAX jet fuel tanks. Equipment, rags and other material left behind may pose a safety hazard during flight.
A Boeing spokesperson said the company reduced total foreign object debris by 60% in 2020 compared to the previous year. He said Boeing is on track to reduce the debris per plane by half this year.
After US regulators approved the 737 MAX for re-carrying passengers in November 2020, some Boeing customers still found debris on the jet during inspection, people familiar with the matter said. He said the company had closed new jets for debris.
People familiar with the wreck said earlier this year, inspections of 737 MAX planes found a pocketknife left in a wheel well and a dirty toilet. Referring to the foreign object debris, a Boeing spokesperson said, “While we are still falling short of our goal of zero FOD for each aircraft we deliver, our customers acknowledge the progress we are making. We do.”
Boeing’s efforts this year include a move to phase out the red plastic caps that cover some aircraft parts before they are installed, a person familiar with the matter said.
According to an Air Force spokesman, one such cap wound stuck in the shut-off valve of a new KC-46A on April 30, when the US Air Force was taking delivery of the newly refueled tanker.
Despite the tanker incident, Boeing has been delivering aircraft with less debris, if any, over the past year, said Army Lieutenant General David Bassett, director of the Defense Contract Management Agency.
“We don’t think we are over the finish line, but we have seen positive progress,” he said.
Andrew Tangel [email protected] . Feather