Workplace loyalty is among the casualties

By Tim Raetzloff | Feb 03, 2011

In May I learned that one of my long-time friends had retired from Boeing. Actually, retired is the wrong word; he is in his middle 50s and had intended to work for Boeing at least until he was 60.

He didn’t need to work, but he liked his job and he was one of the biggest Boeing boosters I know.

I’m sure he was good at his job. He had been there for many years. Much of what I had written about Boeing in the last two years had irritated him.

Suddenly he quit. Why? He has never said in so many words. All he said is, “It wasn’t a place I wanted to work anymore.”

If he were the only one I wouldn’t think much of it. But he seems to represent a pattern. Boeing management is alienating and losing many of its best workers. And the company doesn’t seem to care.

Another acquaintance is leaving his job in assembly on the 787 to tackle another program inside Boeing. He regards himself as lucky that he can get out.

My columns have mostly been about statistics because statistics are provable.

When a Boeing executive says, “We are right on schedule producing two 787s a month,” I can point out that, as recently as Christmas, 787 No. 33 was to begin assembly on Jan. 25 but five days later that still hadn’t happened.

Boeing will say, “The program is on schedule” and I will say, “No, it isn’t – and here is the proof.”

But statistics ignore the human toll. Boeing is frittering away its most valuable asset, its people.

What I have written in the last two years has caused many people to contact me. Some are angry. Most agree with what I say.

From a retired Boeing aircraft designer whose last project was the 787: “I could not agree more with what you have written which, although not much different from what we ex-patriots have been saying for some time, still makes interesting reading.”

A retired senior Boeing executive sat in my store two months ago sadly commenting on the wreckage of the company he had spent his life building up.

A retired employee who was at the first joining of fuselage sections for both the 777 and the 787 described to me how the 777 sections fit perfectly on the first try, but the 787 sections couldn’t be forced together – one was high and one was wide.

Two people who were at the first 787 roll-out, one a Boeing spouse and one a photographer (who don’t know each other) described to me the use of plywood parts on that plane so the roll-out deadline could be met – although in reality it was basically a mock-up, not a real plane as advertised.

A neighbor stopped to talk to me one evening as I was out walking. He had seen one of my columns about the 787 and talked to someone he knew that worked on the plane (I later learned it was his brother).

I thought, “Okay, he’s going to let me have it.” Instead he said his contact had told him I was right and that he (the employee) didn’t want to fly on any of the early 787s.

Last August I was told by a Boeing pilot about potential electrical overloads on the 787; this was three months before the electrical fire on 787 No. 2.

So many Boeing employees tell me things they know about and would like to see fixed, but they are intimidated by the system. Even from Illinois: “Am in the area visiting, grabbed a copy of the Beacon while heading for South Whidbey. Excellent column! The mindset hereabouts seems to be of the `they wouldn't dare’ variety.”

If there were room I could have easily added a dozen more quotes. I could talk about ETOPS and Faraday cage and the near-constant shortage of parts on the assembly floor.

What I have learned from people who have worked on and are working on the 787 is that they want to do the right thing and build a quality airplane. It is more than a job; it is a legacy. And I understand that. To this day I can point to the 747 prototype at the Museum of Flight in Seattle and say that some of my work and my father’s work is inside that plane.

But these same people universally believe the top Boeing executives don’t care about quality as long as Wall Street likes the story they are spinning and maintains the stock price.

What irony. The last Boeing plane designed before the troika of Chicago CEO’s regimes, the 777, is the safest commercial airplane in history with nearly five million flight hours without a fatality.  What will the 787 be?

On Jan. 28, Fitch Rating downgraded $12.4 billion of Boeing debt. Maybe Wall Street isn’t buying the story so much any more. Boeing management says the 787 program is still profitable. I don’t believe them.

What is much worse is that most of Boeing’s employees and former employees don’t believe them, either.

I remain short Boeing.

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(Tim Raetzloff, who operates Abarim Business Computers at Five Corners in Edmonds, evaluates Puget Sound business activity in his regular column in the Beacon. In the interests of full disclosure he says, “Neither I nor Abarim have any interest in or conflict with any company mentioned in this column.”)

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