Production

Boeing deals with new Dreamliner defect amid production issues

Boeing Co.

BA -1.96%

faces a new fault on its 787 Dreamliner, the latest in a series of production slips that have delayed aircraft deliveries and attracted increased scrutiny from the U.S. government.

The new issue is with some titanium parts that are weaker than they should be on the 787s built in the past three years, people familiar with the matter said. The find is among other Dreamliner traps that have left Boeing stuck with more than $ 25 billion in jets in its inventory.

The discovery is further proof that the aircraft maker is still trying to fix its manufacturing operations, despite CEO David Calhoun’s nearly two-year efforts to restore Boeing’s reputation for building quality jets. In addition, the Federal Aviation Administration is investigating Boeing’s quality controls. The company admitted that it had not addressed the issue of waste left over from the production process, such as two empty mini-bottles of tequila found in September on a new Air Force One plane under construction.

A Boeing spokesperson said the company was making progress in improving production and raising its own standards, despite operating disruptions. “We have increased our focus on quality and constantly encourage all members of our team and our supply chain to raise any issues that need attention,” the spokesperson said. “When issues are raised, it indicates that these efforts are working. “

A 787 Dreamliner undergoing maintenance in an All Nippon Airways hangar in Tokyo this year.


Photo:

Toru Hanai / Bloomberg News

Boeing has faced numerous production issues over the past two years which, along with two 737 MAX crashes in late 2018 and early 2019, have prompted US aviation safety regulators to step up their oversight. The situation is feeding on itself, according to people close to the company: For the past two years, Boeing engineers and regulators have looked for problems. New issues found invite further investigation, adding more things to fix.

The Boeing 787 woes come as the FAA examines a series of alleged quality control failures at Boeing’s commercial aircraft unit, according to an Aug. 18 letter from the agency and people familiar with the investigation. The agency claimed that Boeing allowed unqualified personnel to sign quality checks or failed to follow company or FAA guidelines.

Boeing disputed some of the FAA’s claims and told the agency an enforcement action was not warranted because the company is working to improve itself, according to a September 2 letter seen by the Wall Street Journal . The 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 new Dreamliner issue and the FAA investigation have never been reported before. The Boeing spokesperson said the titanium issue was discovered by the company as part of an ongoing audit, as the company refines its quality management system.

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Boeing and regulators have determined that the new titanium issue does not pose an urgent risk to the safety of in-flight aircraft, people familiar with the matter said. The company made immediate repairs to two undelivered planes that were said to have been grounded because they contained a large number of weak parts, the people said. The company plans to resume delivery of the widebody jets in November at the earliest, later than expected, people familiar with the company’s plans said.

Supplier to Boeing Leonardo SpA, an Italian aerospace company, said Thursday it was no longer working with a subcontractor that supplied the titanium parts. Leonardo said the subcontractor was “under surveillance by prosecutors”. Attempts to reach Leonardo’s supplier were unsuccessful.

Leonardo’s shares fell 7% on Thursday. Boeing shares fell 2%.

Boeing has been working to fix problems with the 787 Dreamliner since late 2020 after discovering tiny gaps between sections of the plane that could lead to premature fatigue.

The agency did not approve Boeing’s plan to inspect the new 787s before delivery. At the same time, regulators also maintained stricter monitoring of 737 MAX production following the two MAX crashes. The crashes, which killed 346, were blamed in large part on Boeing’s flawed design of a new flight control system that sent the jets into deadly dives. At the end of 2019, the FAA revoked Boeing’s authority to perform routine safety checks before delivering new MAX jets. A spokesperson for the agency said regulators would retain authority “until the FAA is satisfied.”

FAA officials have been encouraged by Boeing’s attempts to address production and cultivation issues, but are not happy with the pace of the business, people familiar with the agency’s position said. In addition to the recent letter on quality controls, the FAA sent a letter on September 6 to Boeing describing how the company is behind in resolving 48 ways various planes are not meeting federal standards. The issues relate to things like paint thickness, windshield strength and undercarriage valves, according to the letter.

Boeing focused more on dealing with the backlog faster and cleared more than a quarter of the material cited in the FAA letter, a person familiar with the matter said.

The FAA’s scrutiny of production also focused on preventing factory debris from being left inside finished planes. As of early 2020, debris had been found in nearly two-thirds of the fuel tanks of newly produced 737 MAX jets. Tools, rags and other materials left behind can present a safety hazard in flight.

The Boeing spokesman said the company reduced the total number of foreign object debris by 60% in 2020 from the previous year. Boeing is on track to cut plane debris in half again this year, he said.

After U.S. regulators approved the 737 MAX to carry passengers again in November 2020, some Boeing customers still found debris on the jets during inspections, people familiar with the matter said. The company swept new jets for debris, they said.

Earlier this year, inspections of the 737 MAX aircraft found a pocket knife left in a wheel well and a dirty toilet, people familiar with the debris said. “While we still fail to meet our goal of zero FOD for every aircraft we deliver, our customers recognize the progress we are making,” the Boeing spokesperson said, referring to the foreign object debris.

Boeing’s attempts this year included a move to phase out the red plastic caps that cover some parts of the plane before they are installed, a person familiar with the matter said.

One of those plugs got stuck in a shutoff valve of a new KC-46A on April 30, as the U.S. Air Force took delivery of the new refueller, according to an Air Force spokeswoman.

Despite the tanker incident, Boeing has delivered planes over the past year with much less, if any, debris, said Army Lt. Gen. David Bassett, director of the Defense Contract Management Agency.

“We don’t think we’re at the finish line, but we’ve seen some positive progress,” he said.

Write to Andrew Tangel at [email protected]

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