Union asks Congress to intervene in Boeing inspection issue

‘Verification Optimization’ borrowed for auto industry

The plan, dubbed Verification Optimization by Boeing, is adopted from a process that Toyota adopted for its automobile assembly lines. The company says the smart tools, sometimes connected by Bluetooth to Boeing’s computer network, can produce more accurate results, thus eliminating the need for quality inspections, and produce them more quickly.

The new tools and techniques will allow Boeing to eliminate hundreds of high-skilled, higher-paying jobs for inspectors. The company told Machinists Union District 751 it expects to eliminate some 450 inspector jobs this year and a similar number next year. That’s about 30% of all inspectors.

More importantly, however, it will speed the production process. Historically, there have been a couple of minutes of downtown for mechanics while they wait for an inspector to come around to sign off on their work. Eliminate the inspection and you eliminate that downtime, and if you eliminate those few minutes of downtime a few thousand times on each plane, that’s significant time savings. This allows Boeing to increase production rates without having to invest in more people or facilities.

The Machinists Union, not surprisingly, is not in favor of the plan.

Union: Bad decision puts delivery schedules at risk

Through its spokeswoman, IAM 751 declined to discuss its response to Boeing’s plan.

But in the most-recent edition of the union’s newsletter, IAM 751 President Jon Holden spoke out strongly against it.

“Removing inspections is a bad decision that will in no way improve the manufacturing process,” Holden said in his April newsletter column. “Defects will simply be pushed down line, and when discovered, they (will) result in rework that is more costly and cumbersome to perform.”

Doing rework downstream will quite likely lead to more injuries, Holden continued, and it’s not hard to imagine why. Climbing up to do rework on a wing that’s already been attached to an aircraft body would be far more difficult–and potentially more dangerous–than doing work on a wing that’s securely fastened in a floor-level jig.

All in all, Verification Optimization is “a bad decision that will cause an abundance of out-of-sequence work, more damage to the airplane, additional injuries to our members, more work at the end of the manufacturing process and the risk of late deliveries,” the union told its members in the newsletter.

The union has bargained with Boeing for a guarantee that the 900 inspectors whose work is going away will get other jobs, and if there’s a documented decline in quality, it has the right to propose returning to the old inspection regime.

“We recognize this will be a long battle, and one that we will continue to fight to ensure the quality of our manufacturing process and the airplanes we build,” the union newsletter reported.

Boeing says tools are bringing defects down

But manual inspections, at best, only catch 87% of manufacturing mistakes, Boeing executives told The Seattle Times in January.

At the same time, the Boeing’s first steps toward implementing these kinds of production changes have improved manufacturing quality, the managers maintain. Overall production defects (for every program other than the 767) were down 20% in 2018, compared to 2017, they told the newspaper.

That trend was expected to accelerate in 2019, executives said at the time, before the production slow-down related to the 737 MAX grounding.

The FAA so far has been willing to go along with Boeing’s proposal to drop inspections, but the union has been gathering evidence of what it believes are problems the changes have caused and is pushing for a meeting with the FAA where it could present that evidence. And, according to its newsletter, union representatives are trying to get Washington’s Congressional delegation involved, urging unnamed Senators or Representatives to intervene with the FAA to take the meeting.

And – if you’re a political junky — here’s where it could get interesting.

Washington delegation holds key committee posts

Washington Senator Patty Murray sits on a Senate subcommittee that authorizes funding for the FAA; her colleague Maria Cantwell sits on the Subcommittee on Aviation Operations, Safety and Security, which has oversight of the FAA.

In the House, Congressman Rick Larsen is a member of the House Transportation Committee’s Subcommittee on Aviation, which has jurisdiction over the FAA; and his fellow Democrat Derek Kilmer is on the House Committee that appropriates funds for the Commerce Department, which includes the FAA.

In addition, Adam Smith is the Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee; and Pramila Jayapal is on the House Budget Committee, which ultimately decides on all funding matters.

All are Democrats, and all of them have been endorsed and supported by the Machinists Union in their most recent campaigns. Smith in particular boasts of having gone to college on a Machinists Union scholarship; his father was a member of the union. Smith and Jayapal also got $10,000 each from the union’s political action committee in the last election cycle.

And yet, Boeing has also given generously to most of these elected officials. Cantwell got $54,065 in the last cycle, when she was up for reelection. (Boeing gave her opponent $10,000 as well.) Smith got $31,250 and Kilmer $11,569, all according to the website OpenSecrets.org.

In addition, Boeing spent $15.1 million on lobbying efforts last year, according to Open Secrets.

It could come down to a question of what matters more – Boeing’s cash and lobbying muscle, or the union’s ability to mobilize tens of thousands of voters and provide hundreds of campaign volunteers. But one phone call from any one of those key Congresspeople could make a major difference.

No direct connection to MCAS

It’s important to point out that there is no indication that this plan to cut out inspections would have had any impact on Boeing’s MCAS, the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System on the 737 MAX that’s been implicated in two crashes.

That said, the optics of Boeing deliberately doing fewer quality inspections on its airplanes would seem to be particularly bad right now, especially now that the U.S. Air Force has demanded more inspections as a condition of it agreeing to start taking delivery of KC-46 tankers again.

It’s not inconceivable that the FAA – under pressure for what critics call allowing Boeing to certify the 737 MAX itself – could respond by tightening the reigns on this plan to drop inspections.

 

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