Boeing 737 problems have grown despite company’s reassurances

A Boeing 737 fuselage manufactured by Spirit AeroSystems sits on a train car outside the company’s Wichita plant awaiting delivery to Boeing’s final assembly plant in Renton, Wash.
A Boeing 737 fuselage manufactured by Spirit AeroSystems sits on a train car outside the company’s Wichita plant awaiting delivery to Boeing’s final assembly plant in Renton, Wash. Randal G. Allen/Spirit AeroSystems

As 53 undelivered jetliners sat parked outside Boeing’s Renton, Wash., plant last week, up from just over 40 a month ago, workers inside the factory felt the pressure of constant overtime and an unrelenting buildup of unfinished tasks.

Though the company assured Wall Street analysts visiting Seattle that the pileup of Boeing 737 jets has peaked and will be sorted out by year-end, some front-line workers were less optimistic.

Planes awaiting delivery filled the ramps along the edges of Renton Municipal Airport, spilled onto one of the taxiways, and were parked on all available spaces on the Boeing site, along the lakefront and between the buildings.

Of those, 38 were the new 737 MAX model, 14 of them missing their engines. Delays in delivering the MAX model’s new LEAP engines, made by CFM International, are just one of the choke points causing the pileup. Another has been past delays in fuselages from Spirit Aerosystems in Wichita.

Two workers said the engine supply is noticeably improving. Yet shortages of other parts mean the amount of unfinished work on the jets rolling out in Renton is still growing.

Internal Boeing documents showing detailed operational data viewed by the Seattle Times indicate that on Aug. 30, Boeing Renton was roughly 26,600 jobs behind schedule. A week later, Sept. 6, that total had swelled to about 31,000 jobs behind schedule.

One worker said Boeing has set a daunting target of no more than 50 jobs behind schedule per airplane under assembly by the end of October, which would be a total of about 1,500 jobs.

Those totals include final assembly, wings fabrication and preflight tests. Each job is one discrete task, each varying in complexity and the time and resources required for completion.

A job like a pressure test of the finished aircraft will take several hours, and no other work on the plane is possible while it’s in progress. Smaller jobs, such as installing electronics modules, can be done faster and completed while mechanics do other jobs elsewhere on the airplane.

Finishing work out on the field that is normally done inside the factory consumes far more time and resources, as equipment has to be brought out to the planes. Such out-of-sequence work, often referred to as “traveled work,” may easily take two or three times longer to do than if accomplished on the assembly line.

In addition, all the parked planes have to be constantly shuffled around to be worked on, which is time consuming. On a typical day recently, 17 planes had to be moved from one spot on the Renton site to another, an internal Boeing document shows.

Boeing executives told analysts that to get a grip on the backlog of work, they are adding about 600 employees to the 10,000-strong Renton workforce, with a combination of new hires and workers transferred from Everett and other Puget Sound facilities.

Employees are working constant overtime. Many volunteered to work all through the Labor Day holiday weekend and a few have worked as many as nine weekends in a row without a break.

“They have opened the checkbook, letting people work as many hours as they want,” said one Renton inspector.

A high-grade factory mechanic, who like the inspector spoke on the condition of anonymity because he spoke without management permission, said some employees are burned out, calling in sick just to get days off.

“The general sense is that we are so far behind,” he said. “It’s going to be the end of the year before anything is remotely on track.”

Although Boeing delivered just 29 of the single-aisle 737s in July, down from 56 in June, and deliveries for the rest of the third quarter will be lower than initially projected, executives told analysts that a rush of fourth-quarter deliveries will ensure that Renton hits the expected number of jet deliveries for the year.

Ken Herbert, an analyst with Canaccord Genuity, was circumspect in his investor note.

“We put the odds at 50 percent that (Boeing) will succeed with its recovery plan by the end of 2018, with some suppliers indicating that the delays could spill into 2019,” Herbert wrote.

Herbert said Boeing attributed almost all its troubles to the lagging supply of engines from CFM and fuselages from Spirit AeroSystems in Wichita. Philippe Petitcolin, CEO of French aircraft engine maker Safran, said the CFM joint venture with GE would recover before year-end from delays on its LEAP engine shipments.

Boeing executives said they sent a team of 82 Boeing employees to Kansas to help Spirit sort out its problems.

Spirit CEO Tom Gentile said on a second-quarter earnings conference call last month that following the delays Spirit had ramped up its 737 fuselage production and delivered a record 169 of them to Boeing in the three-month quarter ended June 30.

And on Wednesday, the company said in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing it thinks it has moved past its 737 delays from earlier this year.

“Spirit has been making progress on transitioning to higher rates of production and Spirit management believes Spirit is on track to meet its 2018 delivery targets on all programs,” the company said in the filing.

Herbert, the analyst, noted that recent delays affecting the 737 have included other airplane components, including the emergency oxygen supply systems above each passenger seat, produced by Rockwell Collins, and some composite panels on the 737 tail, supplied by the Xi’an Aircraft Company of China.

Rockwell Collins declined to comment on any parts shortfall. The Renton inspector said a large delivery of oxygen generators came in last week.

Meanwhile, even as unfinished jets pile up outside, the assembly line continues to flow at a build rate of 52 jets a month. Boeing executives said they remain on track to go up to 57 a month in mid-2019.

As recently as the Farnborough Air Show in July, leaders at both Airbus and Boeing spoke of potentially taking their single-aisle airplane rates even higher, above 60 jets per month.

Contributing: Jerry Siebenmark of The Eagle