Work­ers place faith in Boe­ing’s re­silience

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Obituaries - BY MIKE SEELY New York Times

Just south of Seat­tle’s Boe­ing Field and the Mu­seum of Flight sits another shrine to avi­a­tion, Randy’s Restau­rant. Model airplanes are sus­pended from the 24-hour diner’s ceil­ing, with flight man­u­als and var­i­ous do­geared aero­space tomes strewn about its can­dy­col­ored booths.

Given its prox­im­ity to a ma­jor out­post of the Boe­ing Co., Randy’s has served more than its fair share of chicken-fried steak and brick-shaped hash browns to Boe­ing em­ploy­ees and their fam­i­lies, among them Ron Rus­sell.

Rus­sell’s son works at Boe­ing’s air­craft assem­bly plant in the city of Everett, where he used to in­stall doors on 747s. His mother also worked for Boe­ing. He doesn’t have to think back too far to re­mem­ber 1971, when a global eco­nomic slow­down and sky­rock­et­ing oil prices prompted the com­pany to lay off more than half its work­force, send­ing Seat­tle into a tail­spin.

Now, as the com­pany grap­ples with a pair of fa­tal crashes in­volv­ing its most pop­u­lar air­plane, the 737 Max, Rus­sell points to Boe­ing’s record of re­silience as proof that it will be able to over­come the lat­est trou­bles. Will its en­gi­neers be able to de­sign a so­lu­tion to the tech­ni­cal co­nun­drum that threat­ens the com­pany’s best-sell­ing jet ever, which now has been grounded world­wide? “Sure,” Rus­sell said, with­out miss­ing a beat.

A to­tal of 189 peo­ple died aboard a Lion Air flight that went down in In­done­sia in October 2018, while a sec­ond fa­tal Max crash in Ethiopia last month claimed 157 lives. On Fri­day, as pre­lim­i­nary find­ings from the Ethiopia crash cast fur­ther doubt on Boe­ing’s in­struc­tions to pi­lots fly­ing the new Max planes, the com­pany an­nounced that it would re­duce monthly pro­duc­tion of its 737 jets to 42 a month from 52.

It is hard to find a place in Seat­tle where peo­ple don’t have some per­sonal or fam­ily con­nec­tion to the gi­ant air­craft man­u­fac­turer, the largest pri­vate em­ployer in Wash­ing­ton state, and that means plenty of peo­ple wor­ried about whether the back-to-back crashes will af­fect or­ders for a plane upon which the com­pany has banked much of its near-term fu­ture.

The com­pany is every­where: Boe­ing Field, just south of down­town Seat­tle, is still used for test­ing and de­liv­ery of Boe­ing planes. Wide-body jets are as­sem­bled at the com­pany’s gi­ant fac­tory in Everett, to the north. The 737s are put to­gether at the 1.1 mil­lion-square-foot plant in Ren­ton, 12 miles south­east of down­town Seat­tle. Ren­ton is also home to the head­quar­ters of Boe­ing’s com­mer­cial air­plane group.

“One of my very best friends from first grade, both his par­ents worked for Boe­ing,” said Ed Prince, a City Coun­cil mem­ber in Ren­ton. “Seat­tle, for so many years, was a com­pany town – Boe­ing was it.”

Where down­town Seat­tle is boom­ing with ex­pen­sive high-rise condo towers, Ren­ton, a sub­urb of slightly more than 100,000 peo­ple, still sports sin­gle-fam­ily homes in its small-to-wnish core. The city’s pop­u­la­tion tripled dur­ing World War II, and “Boe­ing was a huge part of that,” said El­iz­a­beth Ste­wart, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the Ren­ton His­tory Mu­seum.

The one-way roads that per­me­ate down­town Ren­ton are, said Ste­wart, a relic of World War II-era Boe­ing, which lob­bied for the street grid so it could get work­ers in and out more quickly.

“They’ve been here for over 75 years; they’re iconic for our city,” said Ren­ton’s mayor, De­nis Law. “There was a pe­riod of time where there were very few peo­ple in the im­me­di­ate re­gion who ei­ther didn’t work for the Boe­ing Co. or knew some­one who did.”

Th­ese days, though, Boe­ing is no longer the only fish in the Cedar River, which flows be­neath Ren­ton’s down­town li­brary.

The city has wel­comed a num­ber of new health care com­pa­nies, as well as high-tech com­pa­nies like Wiz­ards of the Coast and in­dus­trial stal­warts like Pac­car, the truck man­u­fac­turer. Across the street from Boe­ing’s Ren­ton plant, on Lake Wash­ing­ton’s south­ern water­front, is a new 712,000-square­foot of­fice com­plex that city of­fi­cials hope will at­tract new high-tech ten­ants.

Some of those one-way streets are be­ing trans­formed into two-way streets.

The ques­tion of what caused the crash of the two 737 MAXs and whether Boe­ing en­gi­neers bear any re­spon­si­bil­ity has been a near-con­stant topic of con­ver­sa­tion – along with ques­tions about a com­pany that has changed sig­nif­i­cantly since many old-timers around town worked there. The com­pany’s cor­po­rate head­quar­ters moved to Chicago in 2001. Some air­craft parts are now man­u­fac­tured as far away as Asia.

Since coun­tries grounded the Max plane, and af­ter Boe­ing paused de­liv­er­ies of new jets, a back­log has been cre­ated on its pro­duc­tion lines in Ren­ton.

Boe­ing em­ploy­ees are not al­lowed to pub­licly dis­cuss the crash in­ves­ti­ga­tions, so many of those out­side must rely on snip­pets of in­for­ma­tion from friends, or news re­ports. Lately, many of those re­ports have fo­cused on an au­to­mated sys­tem de­signed to pre­vent stalls that may have caused the pi­lots to lose con­trol of the planes – though no de­fin­i­tive cause has been de­ter­mined.

Greg Lang­mann, 60, who spent 35 years with the com­pany as an en­gi­neer be­fore re­tir­ing in 2017, said he came to be­lieve that the cul­ture at the com­pany was in need of re­vamp­ing.

“De­ci­sions at Boe­ing are typ­i­cally con­ducted in tribal fash­ion, rather than openly us­ing rea­son and logic,” said Lang­mann, who worked in of­fices down the street from the Ren­ton plant for much of his ca­reer. “Project man­age­ment, a fo­cus at Boe­ing, should be more than man­ag­ing cost and sched­ule,” he said. “You should un­der­stand some­thing of the project. Oth­er­wise you can’t man­age prod­uct per­for­mance, value or safety.”

On Fri­day, when it an­nounced the slow­down of its pro­duc­tion of the 737, the com­pany also said it would es­tab­lish a new com­mit­tee on its board of di­rec­tors to re­view how it de­vel­ops and builds air­craft.

“My per­sonal opin­ion is Congress has never pro­vided fund­ing to the FAA to give them in-depth knowl­edge of how some of the in­tri­cate sys­tems of airplanes work,” said Dave Hayes, a re­tired Boe­ing pi­lot. “They’re not as in­volved on a daily ba­sis as the pi­lots and en­gi­neers at Boe­ing are.”


Boe­ing em­ploy­ees take a break in Ren­ton, Wash., on March 30. Boe­ing has an­nounced that it would re­duce monthly pro­duc­tion of its 737 jets to 42 a month from 52.

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