US: Slashing Safety?
Is Boeing compromising on safety in order to cut costs? Some workers believe so, pointing to changes in the way the company carries out inspections. A former head of the National Transportation Safety Board, among others, seems to agree.
The new inspection procedures are the subject of a labor grievance filed with Boeing by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, according to several sources. Unable to agree in initial talks, the company and the union are setting up arbitration for the summer.
At issue is a process known as "self-inspection." That's when parts are inspected by the people who build them, rather than full-time, extensively trained inspectors. Boeing has been using self-inspection for more and more plane parts for a number of years. But, according to veteran tool inspector Bryan DuPaul, who has supplied information to the union for its case, "Now we're beginning to move to aircraft systems that are critical to safety of flight" - for example, portions of what's known as the wire bundle, which gathers together all of a plane's wiring.
The job security of DuPaul and other inspectors is at stake, which is undoubtedly a big reason the machinists union that represents them is complaining. The union itself won't comment publicly, other than to say that it has agreed with Boeing on a panel of six arbitrators for a process that will be binding.
DuPaul, however, says that workers are equally concerned about safety. "This is a very emotional issue for people on the floor." He says they have a love of aircraft that makes them want to see things done right. In addition, he says, "We fly on planes too."
Because under self-inspection employees are judging their own work, DuPaul says, "people have a vested interest in passing work that could be marginal or questionable. Or they could be under pressure from their supervisor to get [the part] out on time." What's more, he says, using the example of a wire bundle builder, "the person who is building the wire bundle actually has a full-time job. So you're asking him to do more in the same amount of time."
A part needs thorough inspection at the time it is built, he continues, because "some of the things that go into an airplane are buried so deep, there is no way they'll ever be inspected again." Furthermore, he adds, "As you know from recent history, there could be problems built into an airplane that could take years to manifest." Consider, for instance, the possible manufacturing problem with a part called the jackscrew assembly on the Alaska Airlines plane that crashed last month. (The MD-83 was built by McDonnell Douglas before its merger with Boeing).
Boeing couldn't manage to find someone to talk about the issue for this story, despite repeated requests over a week's time. Company spokesperson Peter Conte says only, "Safety is the number one priority of the company," and "every plane meets FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] requirements."
It doesn't take an aerospace engineer, however, to figure out that Boeing is trying to save money by getting rid of its high-priced inspectors and asking other workers to take on more responsibility for the same pay. After a postmerger change in management and a historic financial loss in 1997 that had Wall Street screaming for blood, Boeing has made no bones about its intention to cut costs - a principle that when applied to employee benefits gave rise to the bitter engineers' strike. Plagued by production delays in recent years, the company is also trying to speed up the manufacturing process. To that end, it would help if builders didn't have to wait around for an inspector to come and approve every part.
But as management keeps telling workers that it wants to build planes "faster, cheaper, and better," workers like longtime toolmaker David Clay are saying, "All it's gotten is cheaper."
The FAA is well aware of what Boeing is doing. In fact, since January of last year it has been monitoring a self-inspection program in two Boeing shops, the wire and fabrication shops in Everett, according to Seattle FAA spokesperson Kirsti Dunn. She puts the most palatable gloss on the changes. "The point is to promote ownership," she says. "You're building in quality rather than inspecting for quality." If nevertheless the FAA is not satisfied when it evaluates the program in July, Dunn says, it could require Boeing to revert totally back to the traditional inspection method.
Yet FAA supervision isn't necessarily reassuring. "Unfortunately, I think the FAA's record has shown that it is a handmaiden of the aerospace industry," says Jim Brunett, a transportation safety consultant in Arkansas and, from 1982 to 1988, chairperson of the National Transportation Safety Board, the federal agency that investigates airplane crashes. One recent example was the FAA's willingness to keep secret information about Boeing's troublesome 737 rudders, as revealed last month by The Seattle Times' Byron Acohido.
That Boeing has swallowed its American competitors hasn't helped the situation, Brunett suggests. "The danger we have now with one major aerospace manufacturer in the US, one that finds itself in competition with a foreign firm," he says, referring to the rivalry between America's Boeing and France's Airbus, "is that we've become a bit of a cheerleader. I hope that's not influencing [the FAA's] decision making."
Brunett himself, when told of Boeing's use of self-inspection, finds it "very disturbing. The idea of quality control means that there is some independent determination of quality." He says that must be done by staff who have a "completely different reporting channel" than the people who are doing the job to be inspected. For example, he says, when airlines bring their planes in for maintenance, quality-control inspectors who look over the work report to a different vice-president. "Not only is there different personnel, but a whole different administrative unit," he stresses. "In fact, regulations require it, and the failure to do that by some airlines has been identified as a cause of accidents."
Perhaps self-inspection has already taken a toll. "Boeing has had a number of production problems over the last few years which have been significant enough to shake the FAA into an audit," notes David Evans, editor of the industry newsletter Air Safety Week. The FAA has finished the unusual production audit but won't make results public for several months.
Boeing inspector DuPaul insists that despite his concerns planes are still safe to fly - for now. "I don't think anybody's life is at stake at this point in time." He says workers are more worried about the future, as Boeing continues to extend self-inspection into critical areas.
Still, the consequences are so great that it's hard not to feel uneasy. As DuPaul says, "At 30,000 feet, you don't want things to start to go wrong."