Boeing dangling cash to fix 787 backlog

The Seattle TimesFebruary 21, 2014 

SEATTLE — The Boeing Co. is offering a one-time bonus of 8 percent of a year’s pay to workers at the 787 Dreamliner plant in North Charleston, S.C., if they can fix the production problems there within the next few months.

To reduce the deluge of work that has been flowing unfinished to the final-assembly plant in Everett, managers in Charleston also are reorganizing the myriad jobs involved in assembling the jet’s mid-fuselage, where the worst bottleneck is.

And Boeing says it has completed the first step in its campaign to control Charleston’s production problems: rapidly hiring 1,100 workers, many of them skilled contractors, in the past three months.

A big backlog has built up, however. Last week, the mid-fuselage build teams were just shy of 8,000 jobs behind schedule. At recent rates, that’s about 10 days of work.

“There are still a lot of wiring issues,” and efforts to fix that are “taking a lot of manpower and a lot of hours,” said a manager in Charleston.

The most recent fuselage sections delivered to Everett from Charleston are those for Dreamliner No. 178.

Boeing’s latest target, said the manager, is to minimize the work traveling incomplete to Everett for Dreamliner No. 195. That would be within a couple months.

“But to me it still feels chaotic,” cautioned the manager, who, like other employees cited in this story, spoke on condition of anonymity because Boeing doesn’t allow workers to speak without authorization. “I don’t think that will happen by line No. 195.”

Meanwhile in Everett, work is still backing up as sections arrive missing not only major wiring bundles but even the brackets that hold the wiring.

According to three people in the factory, work on both 787 assembly lines in Everett slid by two to three days in the past week, despite mandatory overtime through the weekend for many mechanics.

“If parts are not there, you cannot do your job,” said one Everett mechanic. “The whole process has to stop until we go backwards and do what wasn’t done in Charleston.”

Boeing spokesman Marc Birtel insisted that “the 787 program remains on track to meet its delivery commitments” despite “a temporary increase” in the number of jobs behind schedule in Charleston.

He declined to respond to specifics, such as the number of jobs lagging in Charleston.

Birtel said the additional work traveling to Everett “is planned and well understood.”

“Traveled work is something we deal with in all production programs,” Birtel said, adding that the Charleston “mid-body team is working to a plan that will result in improved performance, and significantly less additional work (traveling to Everett), in the months ahead.”

Boeing Charleston mechanics build the mid-fuselage and rear-fuselage sections of all 787s. They also do final assembly of some 787s, working toward a goal of assembling three jets per month. The site employs just over 8,000 workers, including contractors.

The bottleneck is the plant where they build the mid-fuselage sections, which are 84 feet long for 787-8 models and 104 feet long for the 787-9 models.

In that plant, workers join the big pieces of the structure, thread wiring, air ducts and hydraulic lines through the barrel, and finish the cabin walls. Each piece of that work is broken down into thousands of smaller jobs.

Since fall, after Boeing stepped up the pace of overall production to 10 jets per month, the mechanics have been overwhelmed.

To keep production flowing, managers have sent the mid-fuselages to Everett with more than 1,000 unfinished jobs per fuselage, adding immense pressure on final-assembly workers here.

To fix that, Boeing is now dangling an incentive: If the workers can get the jobs behind schedule at the entire Boeing South Carolina site below 3,500 by April 30, engineers and managers will get a flat $2,500 and mechanics will get a bonus equal to 8 percent of last year’s pay.

Any jobs that travel to Everett aren’t counted in the bonus calculation. Once an airplane section leaves South Carolina, any incomplete jobs shift from Charleston’s to-do list to Everett’s.

The incentive bonus would be on top of Boeing’s regular annual bonus, which just this month paid the Charleston workforce an extra 18 days’ pay.

If the target is missed in April but achieved by June 30, the bonus paid will be 40 percent less.

If the target is not reached by the end of June, there will be no bonus.

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