Boeing is pushing ahead on a plan to cut about 900 inspectors, replacing their jobs with technology improvements at its Seattle area factories, despite being under fire for software flaws in the 737 Max and quality issues in its other aircraft.
The union has raised an outcry, calling it a “bad decision” that will “eliminate the second set of eyes on thousands of work packages” in its newsletter to members.
Some 451 inspectors will be transferred to other jobs this year, and about the same number next year, out of a total of about 3,000 at its commercial aircraft operations in the Seattle area, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, Local 751, has told its members.
Boeing, which confirms the plan but won’t disclose the number of workers involved, said the changes will result in better quality overall.
The aerospace giant is still facing fallout from the crashes of two 737 Max jetliners — a Lion Air flight in October, killing all 189 aboard, and an Ethiopian Airlines jet in March, which claimed 157 lives.
An automated system designed to make the Max feel like previous generations of the 737 by holding down the plane’s nose appears to have factored in both crashes. The jet has been grounded worldwide while Boeing rewrites and certifies the software that runs the system. Boeing has estimated the debacle will cost it at least $1 billion.
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Damage to Boeing’s reputation could be even worse and it hasn’t been limited to the Max. The New York Times published an exposé last month that alleged shoddy work and weak oversight at Boeing’s plant in South Carolina, which makes the 787 jetliner. The Air Force has twice halted deliveries of the KC-46 midair refueling tanker, based on the 767 airliner, after finding manufacturing debris onboard.
But when it comes to paring its inspection staff on the West Coast, Boeing says the “QA Transformation Plan” won’t undermine safety. Substituting technology gains, it says, will increase quality and effect only “stable” procedures, those in which there is a low probability of mistakes.
For instance, Boeing says when it is bringing out a new aircraft with wings made out composites, there is equipment now that can do the inspections more thoroughly than humans. Once the inspection equipment has verified that it can do the job — with humans overseeing the process — traditional inspectors can be redeployed to other tasks.
“As we identify and reduce second-layer inspections for stable processes, quality assurance professionals will be redeployed and take on new roles such as leading and supporting efforts to prevent defects and rework,” Boeing said in a statement. It adds that it is working to try to convince regulators and others that the changes “will not jeopardize our quality, but will, in fact, lead to higher levels.”
So far, the Federal Aviation Administration hasn’t given the plan a ringing endorsement.
“Our enhanced oversight on this is still underway,” FAA spokesman Lynn Lunsford said.
And skeptics are emerging.
Ralph Nader, the consumer advocate who lost a niece when the Ethiopian Airlines jet crashed and who believes the 737 Max design is fatally flawed, is leery of substituting machines for people when it comes to quality.
More: Global groundings of Boeing 737 Max lower company’s profit, revenue in first quarter
“They still haven’t learned the lesson that risky automation does not replicate experienced human intelligence,” he said. “There is no comparison. There is all kinds of human intuition that can’t be translated into computer code.”
But Ernesto Gonzalez-Beltran, Boeing’s vice president of quality in the commercial aircraft division, said the QA Transformation Plan is a multi-step approach that identifies problems and uses digital tools to help solve them.
Previously, for instance, an inspector used to have to stamp a document ensuring that a particular worker is allowed to perform a function. Now the system cuts out that step, saving time and boosting efficiency by using a computer that can check workers by their employee number to validate they are authorized for a task.
Boeing samples for defects. When a process becomes defect-free — rows of perfectly drilled holes, for example — sampling is reduced, Gonzalez-Beltran said.
There are some inspections on critical items and procedures that will always remain, said Gonzalez-Beltran, and about one element he is adamant: “We will not stop any inspections involving safety of flight.”
Some aerospace industry observers think Boeing could be on the right track.
“It is possibly true what Boeing is saying,” said Todd Curtis of aviation safety site AirSafe.com, who used to work for Boeing. “Technology, in many cases, can do a better job.”
He noted, however, that no matter what kind of technology is employed, it needs human oversight.
Neither the machinists union local nor national would comment directly for this story. Instead, the national IAM would only forward the January and April issues of Local 751’s newsletter, the Aero Mechanic, which included the union’s position and details of meetings in which it said members packed the halls out of concern about would happen if the changes were implemented.
Local 751 President Jon Holden did not respond to calls or emails requesting comment, but in the April newsletter, he wrote a column in which said the union struck a deal with the company to allow its members to have access to data that can point to problem areas for defects and request inspections be reinstated.
The rollback in inspections will mean “defects will simply be pushed down the line and when discovered, they will result in rework that is more costly and cumbersome to perform,” he wrote.
He said the union was trying to arrange a meeting with the FAA in order to present examples that show why the plan is flawed. He did not say, however, that the plan could lead to defective planes leaving the assembly line.
And that, said Gonzalez-Beltran, is the bottom line.
“The priorities are very obvious,” he said. “That’s the safety and quality of our products. We don’t mess with that.”