Boeing defends 787 and 777 plane production process before US Senate hearing

Panel appointed by Federal Aviation Administration to brief politicians on safety issues at plane maker

An under-production 787 Dreamliner at the Boeing manufacturing facility in North Charleston, South Carolina. AFP
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Boeing defended its production process for 787 and 777 planes on Monday, less than 48 hours before members of an expert panel that released a report in February criticising its safety culture are scheduled to testify.

The US Senate commerce committee is expected to hold a hearing on Wednesday with a panel comprising Tracy Dillinger, a Nasa expert on safety culture; Javier de Luis, an aeronautics expert at Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and Najmedin Meshkati, a University of Southern California professor and expert on aviation safety.

The Virginia-based company, which is dealing with a series of controversies related to the safety of its aircraft and its manufacturing process, held a media briefing on Monday explaining the safety standards it follows.

Boeing is confident in the safety and durability of 787 and 777 aircraft, Steve Chisholm, chief engineer for mechanical and structural engineering at Boeing, told the media.

He said the manufacturing process and alterations to the system went through an “extensive design, testing, analysis and validation” process before it was implemented.

Fleet performance is also closely monitored and appropriate action is taken when warranted, Mr Chisholm said.

Boeing shares closed at $167.82, down 1.02 per cent on the day to give the company a market capitalisation of $102.29 billion. The stock is down more than 33 per cent since the start of the year.

Boeing invited media to its North Charleston facility to assess the measures it has implemented to tackle structural issues in the 787 jets.

The company said it has conducted fatigue tests on the aircraft, equivalent of 165,000 takeoffs and landings, surpassing the usual commercial service life of a standard widebody jet. Boeing has also advised operators of its 787 aircraft to conduct checks on a nose component responsible for maintaining cabin pressure.

Quality issues and production flaws with the 787 jets prompted Boeing to suspend deliveries for more than a year until August 2022 as the Federal Aviation Administration investigated the matter.

It was again paused for few weeks in the following February over issues related to regulatory documents.

In 2021, the company said there were instances in which the shims of some 787 jets were of inappropriate size.

A shim is a thin material that is used to plug gaps in various parts of the aircraft during manufacturing.

On Monday, Boeing said the gap management was being completed with “FAA oversight throughout”.

In the 777 aircraft assembly process, Boeing said more than 1,000 planes have completed eight-year maintenance inspections while more than 340 have completed 16-year checks.

'Disconnect' at Boeing

US authorities commissioned the panel's report after the fatal crashes of a 737 Max aircraft in Indonesia in 2018 and Ethiopia in 2019. The panel was appointed by the FAA last year.

In its February report, the panel found a “disconnect” between the company's senior management and employees on safety culture.

It revealed “a lack of awareness of safety-related metrics at all levels of the organisation” and mentioned an “inadequate and confusing implementation of the components of a positive safety culture”.

After the expert panel hearing, the committee is expected to call FAA representatives to appear at a future hearing.

Alaska Airlines grounds Boeing 737 MAX 9 for checks after emergency landing

Alaska Airlines grounds Boeing 737 MAX 9 for checks after emergency landing

Boeing whistleblower to testify before Congress

The FAA is also investigating allegations raised by Boeing whistleblower Sam Salehpour, who claimed that the plane maker bypassed safety and quality standards during the production of its 787 Dreamliner jets.

The Senate permanent subcommittee on investigations is expected to hear Mr Salehpour’s testimony on Wednesday, according to Reuters.

He was moved away from the Boeing’s 787 programme and faced termination threats after raising safety concerns.

Mr Salehpour said issues ignored by the company could compromise the strength and stability of the jets and reduce their longevity.

He has joined a growing number of present and past Boeing employees who allege that the company disregarded their apprehensions and took action against them.

“Employees are encouraged to express dissenting opinions, ask questions and raise concerns,” Lisa Fahl, vice president for plane programme engineering, told the media on Monday.

"Their input is valued and their questions addressed."

Besides safety concerns, Boeing is also experiencing a dip in deliveries that dropped in the March quarter to the lowest point since mid-2021.

The company delivered about 83 planes in the January-March period, about 36 per cent less than the prior year period. Of these, 67 were 737 jets and 13 were 787 planes.

This was 47 per cent less than the last quarter of 2023.

Last month, Boeing’s chief executive Dave Calhoun announced he would step down by the end of 2024 as part of a broad management reshuffle.

Updated: April 16, 2024, 12:06 PM