|>> || A Seattlean laments: |
As a Seattle local, near the heart of Boeing manufacturing, I've found that a critical part of this story that hasn't necessarily reached national or international attention is the corporate politics of Boeing.
Some years ago - around 2009 I believe? - Boeing went through a merger with another corporation. The Boeing name was kept, being widely known, but the management positions went almost entirely to the new company.
Boeing engineers and machinists had historically been an incredibly strong union, as the managers of the company knew that these were the people who actually made the company function. While of course there are written plans for all the planes, the technical knowledge of how to build them correctly was passed down directly from old employees to new ones,somewhat like a traditional mentorship.
Now, when the new management came in, there was already tension between the management and the union, since the union had been on strike at the start of the 2008 recession, which had caused a significant blow to company profits. Of course, there's no way the union could have known this, and sometimes that's how strikes go - but rather than understanding that they needed to bargain with the union, the new management decided to destroy it. They fired the vast majority of their senior engineers - I learned all this from a bus driver, who'd been fired just years out from retirement, after working as a boeing engineer for his entire career. They tried outsourcing production of individual parts to China and merely assembling the parts at the Washington plants, but that was a disaster - parts came back in all kinds of wrong sizes and with significant quality issues. So they realized it was critical to make everything in the same plant - and decided to build a new plant in North Carolina, a "right to work" (anti-union) state. This was also a disaster - the engineers they hired there were trying to figure out airplane manufacturing basically from scratch. Again, massive quality issues ensued. Eventually the corporate management realized just how important the mentoring of experienced engineers had been to their production, and sent the handful of engineers they hadn't fired yet to NC to train the scabs. Things stabilized after that, but they'd still lost a massive amount of knowledge and skill with all the people they'd fired. The Washington plants continued operation, at a significantly reduced volume, but the union was massively weakened.
The bigger picture here is that Boeing has built its entire reputation on reliability, quality, and expert engineering. The old management squabbled with the union, but they knew that, and they respected it. They understood that a passenger airplane is a piece of infrastructure, something which must be absolutely reliable, easy to repair and maintain, long-lasting, and replaced with new purchases only as needed.
The new management, despite a series of expensive manufacturing disasters which perfectly illustrated the importance of consistency, reliability, and expertise, entirely failed to learn their lesson. They view airplanes as a commodity to be marketed. They are willing to cut corners, push deadlines, mislead with marketing, and treat core safety features as "bonus upgrades" with an extra cost. Everything that has gone wrong with the 737 max can be explained by this corporate mindset.