Boeing plans safety ‘stand down’ as United reconsiders 737 MAX orders

On the same day United Airlines said it would consider alternatives to Boeing for its next airplane order, the manufacturer announced a one-day work pause at its Renton factory for employees to learn and focus on quality assurance.

Boeing 737 MAX workers from the production, delivery and support teams in Renton will spend Thursday participating in working sessions, the company said on Tuesday. It is the first of many “Quality Stand Down” days Boeing will host over the next few weeks at its factories.

Employees will participate in “hands-on learning, reflection and collaboration,” Boeing wrote in a note sent to all commercial airplanes employees and posted on its website. The goal is to identify quality and compliance improvements and create actionable plans, according to the note.

Stan Deal, Boeing Commercial Airplanes chief executive officer, said in a statement the sessions will allow “all teammates who touch the airplane to pause, evaluate what we’re doing, how we’re doing it and make recommendations for improvement.”

The pause is part of a list of immediate actions Boeing plans to take following the Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 safety incident earlier this month when a panel blew off an 737 MAX 9 fuselage midflight. That panel was a door plug filling a space that some airlines use as an emergency exit.

The flight landed safely in Portland but the incident has heightened scrutiny of Boeing and Spirit AeroSystems, Boeing’s supplier that builds MAX fuselages.

The Federal Aviation Administration grounded the 737 MAX 9 planes that fill the open space with a door plug shortly after the incident. Those planes, flown by Alaska Airlines and United in the U.S., will remain grounded until they are inspected, following instructions from Boeing and the FAA.

On Sunday, the FAA recommended airlines also inspect another, older Boeing model — the 737-900ER — that has the same door plug design.

Since the fuselage blowout, Boeing has said it will implement additional inspections as its planes are built, work alongside teams at Spirit to ensure door plugs are properly installed and open its factories to additional oversight. It also hired Admiral Kirkland Donald to lead a third-party review of Boeing’s quality management system.

“We have taken important steps in recent years to strengthen our Quality Management System’s foundation and its layers of protection. But the AS1282 accident and recent customer findings make clear that we are not where we need to be,” Deal wrote in a message to employees last week.

Alaska and United Airlines both found loose hardware related to the door plug as they began inspecting other planes in their fleets.

On Tuesday morning, United CEO Scott Kirby indicated the airline would consider options other than Boeing for its next airplane order.

In an interview with CNBC, Kirby said the airline was about five years behind its original order for Boeing’s MAX 10 plane. After the MAX 9 incident, United has begun crafting a new plan that doesn’t include Boeing’s MAX 10, he said.

“I’m disappointed that the manufacturing challenges do keep happening at Boeing. This isn’t new,” Kirby said. “I think the MAX grounding is probably the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

The MAX 10, the largest of the four-model MAX line, and the MAX 7 have yet to receive FAA approval to carry passengers.

Alaska Airlines CEO Ben Minicucci said in an NBC interview Tuesday afternoon he was “more than frustrated. … My demand on Boeing is, what are they going to do to improve their quality programs in-house?”

Meanwhile, the union representing machinists and aerospace workers at Boeing said Tuesday it had delayed contract negotiations amid the fuselage blowout inspection. Both International Association of Machinists District 751 and Boeing are named as independent parties in the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation into the incident.

Contract negotiations were supposed to begin in early February but are now delayed until early March.

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