<img height="1" width="1" style="display:none" src="https://www.facebook.com/tr?id=192888919167017&amp;ev=PageView&amp;noscript=1">
Friday,  April 19 , 2024

Linkedin Pinterest
News / Business

With Boeing in hot seat, claims against supplier Spirit AeroSystems take shape

By Patrick Malone, The Seattle Times
Published: February 21, 2024, 9:58am

A major Boeing supplier was already facing allegations from one former employee that supervisors routinely ignore mistakes and send substandard quality parts to Boeing.

Now, as quality control problems at Boeing and its suppliers receive intense scrutiny following a Jan. 5 blowout aboard an Alaska Airlines 737 MAX 9, another ex-Spirit AeroSystems employee has come forward to support the whistleblower’s claims.

Spun out of Boeing two decades ago, Wichita, Kan.-based Spirit AeroSystems builds large sections of several Boeing jetliner models, including the main body of the 737 MAX jets assembled in Renton. Federal investigators contend mistakes made in Renton during final assembly led to the midair blowout that left a hole in the side of Alaska Flight 1282 as it climbed out of Portland, an incident that has resulted in extraordinary new restrictions on Boeing’s plane production at a challenging time for the aerospace giant.

Joshua Dean, the first whistleblower whose claims were made public shortly after the blowout, worked as a quality auditor at Spirit’s flagship manufacturing site in Wichita, where workers assemble large pieces of the 737, including the fuselage. He was fired last year for allegedly failing to conduct inspections that were his responsibility, resulting in faulty tail fin fittings being shipped to Boeing.

Dean says his termination was retaliation for his repeated attempts to flag errors he observed on the manufacturing floor, reports that Spirit supervisors ignored, allowing unacceptable products to flow out the door to Boeing. He claims he flagged one major manufacturing flaw in fall 2022 that Spirit management never addressed until it was discovered by Boeing the following summer.

New scrutiny

Dean’s allegations are laid bare in a civil lawsuit brought against Spirit by investors who say that company leaders’ failure to address known problems drove down the value of Spirit stock. Spirit disputes the contention.

“We strongly disagree with the assertions made by the plaintiffs,” Spirit spokesperson Joe Buccino said in a written statement. “Spirit intends to vigorously defend against the claims.”

For the first time since Dean’s accusations surfaced, a former colleague who worked alongside him has affirmed claims that Dean told Spirit managers about misdrilled holes in 737 fuselage components, parts that were then sent to Boeing. Dean claims Spirit supervisors knew about and allowed subpar — or, as Dean describes them, unsafe — products to clear its inspection process.

Dean’s allegations against Spirit, made in a deposition for the lawsuit, have been spotlighted in news accounts since the dramatic midflight blowout panicked passengers.

The incident, which was not related to specific manufacturing errors mentioned by Dean, forced the grounding of 171 MAX 9s, disrupted air travel and triggered a Federal Aviation Administration investigation as well as hearings in Congress.

National Transportation Safety Board investigators say four key bolts on the panel were never reinstalled after the Spirit-built fuselage panel was opened at Boeing’s Renton final assembly plant.

The Seattle Times, citing a person familiar with the details, reported last month that personnel opened the panel so that a team of Spirit mechanics in Renton could repair rivets on the door frame. The NTSB report revealed Boeing mechanics discussed restoring the panel after the rivet rework was complete.

“Just really sick”

The lawsuit that contains Dean’s deposition was filed by Spirit stockholders in December. Attorneys for the investors accuse the company of downplaying its quality problems. When those problems were discovered and widely reported, the value of Spirit stock plummeted. The investors are seeking to recoup their losses from Spirit.

Dean’s former co-worker, Lance Thompson, told The Times that meeting production deadlines trumped safety and quality at the Spirit plant in Wichita. He said managers wanted fewer defects to be flagged, leading mechanics to hide them.

“You want to fix problems, not hide them,” Thompson said. “The culture is just really sick.”

“I almost quit because I was being asked to rush through the audits so we can stay on schedule,” Thompson said in a phone interview from Wichita. “I was getting to a point where I was going to have to tell my management — you know, be insubordinate — because I couldn’t rush through that fast.”

Amid financial struggles that are inextricable from its reliance on Boeing’s business, Spirit, which also supplies Boeing competitor Airbus, changed leaders in October. Patrick Shanahan, a former Boeing executive and past acting U.S. defense secretary, replaced Thomas Gentile as CEO. In his year-end message to investors, Shanahan was more forthcoming than his predecessors that Spirit must do a better job of limiting unacceptable products that reach Boeing.

“Every day, we have to put time and attention to that,” Shanahan told investors during his first stockholder call in November. “And it isn’t as though there’s a silver bullet out there or a different procedure that we can implement. It’s the whole organization being, first and foremost, focused on how we build the product.”

Dean, who holds a degree in mechanical engineering, brought about 20 years of experience to Spirit when he was hired in 2019. He was laid off in 2020 as the company made cuts due to COVID-19, but returned in May 2021 as a quality auditor. Thompson said he and Dean were not quality inspectors; their job was to monitor and analyze processes, not find individual defects.

In his deposition for the stockholder lawsuit against Spirit, Dean describes a workforce at Spirit that was ravaged by the pandemic and saw much of its workforce leave or get laid off. The positions that were filled were claimed by less experienced workers, “resulting in more rework and repairs that had to be performed,” Dean said, due to a degradation in the quality of work.

That was compounded by what Dean called Spirit’s “culture of not wanting to look for or to find problems.”

An unorthodox approach

Thompson described a pervasive reluctance to flag errors at Spirit for fear of employment consequences.

He said Spirit managers often didn’t address the root cause of manufacturing flaws Dean found. Instead they might have mechanics fix an individual error, while not recording it as a recurring flaw in the manufacturing process.

“This is about doing what’s right,” Thompson said. “In the aircraft industry, you can rework anything if you have cover and authority to do it. There’s such a stigma around a tag — a fix. That’s so wrongheaded.”

Dean and Thompson worked together as quality technical auditors at the Wichita plant. According to Thompson, their job was to assess the effectiveness of the manufacturing plans and systems at Spirit with the ultimate goal of reducing production errors, which can prove costly to the company when Boeing discovers errors and rejects components.

“There was no expectation that we were supposed to be … finding everything wrong with every aircraft that went out of that factory,” Thompson said. “That was not our objective.” Rather, it was “to provide better guidance to the workers on the process to reduce defects in the long run.”

That didn’t stop Dean from closely watching mechanics on the factory floor as they worked. Thompson said Dean’s approach was unusual, and became a barrier to Dean completing the work he was expected to do.

“Everyone in the group knew that Josh was the outlier,” Thompson said. “He was not doing what the rest of the group was doing.”

Dean’s unorthodox work on the factory floor rubbed some mechanics the wrong way. Thompson said they complained about Dean to the mechanics union. By training his attention on every turn of the screw, Dean was promptly discovering errors that might otherwise have evaded the Spirit inspection process.

“There was value in what he did, and he found some things you might not expect to,” Thompson said. Dean “caught ‘em because he was standing over their shoulder watching them, and nobody else was.”

The most significant manufacturing errors Dean flagged involved misaligned holes drilled on 737 MAX aft pressure bulkhead break rings, which fasten the dome-shaped end cap at the back of the passenger cabin to the fuselage skin and are critical to maintaining safe air pressure in flight. He discovered further drilling mistakes when he observed a mechanic performing an unauthorized rework on another section of the aft pressure bulkhead.

Last August, Boeing discovered misaligned drill holes in the aft pressure bulkheads of some 737 MAX models. Repairs caused MAX delivery delays for several months.

Dean believes those errant holes are the same ones he flagged for supervisors in October 2022. Spirit’s failure to follow up on his findings may have hidden that issue for as long as 10 months.

Thompson confirmed that Dean found and reported the errors at that time.

“I can vouch for the fact that Josh turned in [those] findings,” Thompson said.

According to the investors’ lawsuit against Spirit, Dean directly shared with a supervisor “that the mis-drilled holes defect was the worst issue that he had found in one and a half years in his audit role.”

“A culture of pressure”

Dean’s approach, camping out on floor work instead of judging the effectiveness of manufacturing systems, had a troubling side effect: While he’d been occupied with observing work on the factory floor, Dean missed an obvious problem. Another auditor found cracks in approximately 40% of the fittings that attached the vertical tail fin to the fuselage, also called “dagger fittings,” that slipped past Dean while he was focused on the drilling errors.

In April, Spirit terminated Dean, who months earlier had shifted to a new role with the company. The basis offered for his firing, according to the investor lawsuit, was falsified audits. The company claimed he did not conduct audits of the dagger fittings, despite turning in paperwork that claimed he had.

Thompson, who described Dean as “a good guy” and “a friend,” acknowledged Dean put himself in a difficult position by improvising his approach to the job.

Even so, based on the timing of Dean’s firing after he’d been moved to a different job, Thompson said he believes Spirit is scapegoating Dean for problems company leaders were aware of but failed to address.

“They went after him and fired him to make it look like we had one crazy guy who’s to blame,” Thompson said.

Dean’s firing only served to make workers more reluctant to point out errors, according to Thompson, who left Spirit in January to join a different manufacturing firm.

Morning Briefing Newsletter envelope icon
Get a rundown of the latest local and regional news every Mon-Fri morning.

“It wasn’t over defects that are being hidden, it was just a culture of pressure, and they didn’t want to hear what you had to say, and [just] get it done now,” Thompson said. “At one point we were told if we didn’t like it, to start looking for another job. I did, and within another month I found one.”

Seattle Times aerospace reporter Dominic Gates contributed to this report.

Loading...