May 27, 2024

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Former Boeing Manager Says Workers Mishandled Parts to Meet Deadlines

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Two framed documents from a long career at Boeing hang side by side in Merle Meyers’s home: A certificate from 2022 that thanks him for three decades of service. And a letter he received months later reprimanding him for his performance.

The documents reflect his conflicting emotions about the company. Mr. Meyers, who worked as a Boeing quality manager until last year, holds deep affection for the aircraft manufacturer, where both he and his mother worked. But he is also saddened and frustrated by what he described as a yearslong shift by Boeing executives to emphasize speed over quality.

“I love the company,” said Mr. Meyers, 65, who is publicly sharing his concerns for the first time, supported by hundreds of pages of emails and other documents. For years, he said, quality was the top priority, but that changed over time: “Now, it’s schedule that takes the lead.”

Boeing is revered by many aviation professionals as a lasting symbol of ingenuity and an engineering and manufacturing powerhouse. It is so important to the U.S. economy that presidents have effectively served as salesmen for its planes abroad. The company is a dominant force in Washington State and a top employer in the Seattle area, where it was founded and produces the 737 and other planes.

A job at Boeing is often a source of pride, and many employees have intergenerational ties to the company. In addition to his mother, Mr. Meyers said, his wife’s father and grandfather also worked there.

But that shared pride has been badly bruised in recent years. The company’s reputation was tarnished by a pair of fatal crashes of the 737 Max 8 in 2018 and 2019 and an episode when a panel blew out of a 737 Max 9 plane on Jan. 5. That flight reignited intense scrutiny from regulators, airlines and the public.

Last month, Boeing’s chief executive, Dave Calhoun, said he would step down at the end of the year, and its chairman left his position immediately. The company said it had since taken steps to improve quality, including increasing inspections, adding training and pausing production so managers can hear directly from workers.

“We are using this period, as difficult as it is, to deliberately slow the system, stabilize the supply chain, fortify our factory operations and position Boeing to deliver with the predictability and quality our customers demand for the long term,” Mr. Calhoun said in a letter to employees on Wednesday.

While aviation remains exceedingly safe — far fewer people die on planes than in cars, trucks or buses — the Jan. 5 flight highlighted quality concerns raised by Mr. Meyers and other current and former employees. Many who have spoken out say they have done so out of respect for Boeing employees and their work, and a desire to push the company to restore its reputation.

“The Boeing Company has done everything for me, and I will never be able to do enough for them,” said Mr. Meyers, a Christian chaplain who said his decision to speak out was informed partly by his faith. “We love the company fiercely. That’s why you fight for it.”

His career at Boeing, which included some long gaps, started in 1979 with a job making overhead storage bins. Starting in the mid-1990s, he oversaw quality at suppliers that made seats, galleys and other components in Texas, England and France. Mr. Meyers said he had been laid off twice, in the early 1990s and the early 2000s. He returned a few years later and spent the second half of his career in quality oversight in Everett, Wash., where Boeing makes several models of planes.

Mr. Meyers, who wears a ring on his right hand commemorating his 30 years at Boeing, said he had begun to notice slipping in the company’s high standards after its 1997 merger with McDonnell Douglas. He said Boeing’s engineering-first mentality had slowly given way to a stronger focus on profits after executives from McDonnell Douglas assumed top jobs at Boeing.

Mr. Meyers said he was particularly troubled that workers at Boeing’s Everett factory felt such pressure to keep production moving that they would find unauthorized ways to get the parts they needed. That included taking parts assigned to other planes, taking newly delivered components before they could be inspected or logged, or trying to recover parts that had been scrapped. To Mr. Meyers, managers did little to dissuade or punish workers from such shortcuts.

“What gets rewarded gets repeated,” he said. “People get promoted by hustling parts.”

Thousands of people work at the Everett building, which is generally regarded as the world’s largest by volume, and Mr. Meyers acknowledges that his observations were limited to a portion of the work carried out there. But the pressures he described are similar to those identified by other current and former employees.

In one investigation from 2015, Mr. Meyers found that workers had used an unauthorized form to recover scrapped parts, such as landing-gear axles, at least 23 times over 15 years, according to email correspondence. Components are usually scrapped because they are substandard or defective, but workers in several cases said the parts had been removed mistakenly, an explanation that Mr. Meyers said was hard to believe. The movement of parts is generally highly documented and regulated to ensure quality and safety.

“Parts don’t just end up in scrap,” he said. His findings ultimately helped to end the practice, according to the documents provided by Mr. Meyers.

In 2021, his team identified multiple instances in which employees removed parts from receiving areas before those components could be inspected, according to the documents. In one case, an employee took parts and disposed of the associated paperwork and shipping crates. In another instance, Mr. Meyers shared with corporate investigators an annotated email chain showing that several 787 bulkheads had been removed from a receiving area without the knowledge of quality inspectors.

In a statement, the company said it took such violations seriously.

“Boeing’s quality team plays an important role in identifying issues, improving processes and strengthening compliance in our factories,” the company said. “To ensure the safety, quality and conformance of our products, we investigate all allegations of improper behavior, such as unauthorized movement of parts or mishandling of documents. We then work diligently to address them and make improvements.”

Mr. Meyers said that he would notify corporate investigators of such incidents when he believed that the practices he uncovered were widespread and that the company should do more to stop them.

But emails he shared with The New York Times also show that his efforts to get the attention of those investigators often ended in frustration. In some cases, the investigators said they could not substantiate his findings. Mr. Meyers frequently pushed back, succeeding in some cases in prompting additional action, he said.

By early last year, Mr. Meyers had received that written reprimand, which said he was responsible for creating “defective work product, service or output” but didn’t provide any details about what he had done wrong. He felt both that his concerns were not being taken seriously and that if he stayed at Boeing he might eventually be pushed out. He was offered a financial incentive to quit, so he took it.

It was not the departure he had expected or planned for.

Mr. Meyers was a teenager when his mother, Darlene Meyers, joined Boeing in the early 1970s. Her two-decade career there, in which she rose from a clerk to a high-profile role as a designated representative of the Federal Aviation Administration, had helped to lift the two of them out of poverty, he said.

His own Boeing career helped to provide a comfortable life for his family and a good education for his daughter and son, both of whom are in their late 30s and have families of their own.

Since leaving, he has focused more on work that he and his wife, Cindy, who is also a chaplain, have done for some time, helping survivors of trauma or people dealing with grief.

“I didn’t want to go back into aerospace,” he said. “I’ve had enough scars.”

Niraj Chokshi

2024-04-24 13:21:24

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