Boeing said Thursday it will end its local factory shutdown next week and resume all commercial airplane production at its Puget Sound and Moses Lake facilities.
About 27,000 local employees will be back on the job. Among the measures to protect them from the novel coronavirus is the requirement to wear masks at work.
CEO David Calhoun simultaneously cautioned employees that the brutal impact of the global coronavirus pandemic on the aviation world, and the likelihood of a protracted period before air traffic recovers to previous levels, “will change our business for years to come.”
Industry analysts expect airplane production at Boeing and at rival Airbus will need to be cut sharply in response, resulting in substantial local job losses.
Significantly, Boeing said employees will be returning to the Renton assembly lines of the 737 MAX, which had been shut down since January. They’ll be working toward a near-term resumption of MAX production, an indication that Boeing still anticipates clearance from the FAA for the 737 MAX to fly again this summer.
Boeing’s other assembly lines in Everett and in parts facilities around the region were shut down March 25 as novel coronavirus infections spread through the local facilities. One employee, Everett quality inspector Earl Washington, died from COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, on March 22.
In the final weeks before that shutdown, frontline employees grew increasingly fearful and angry at management as virus protection precautions on the factory floor failed to match the assurances of safety from executives. Many employees said they felt unsafe.
A particular focus of worry among the workforce then was the scarcity of personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks and gloves.
Boeing’s messages to employees Thursday sought to offer reassurance that precautions upon their return will be more thorough and will provide a safe working environment.
The company said that at all its sites, it “has taken extra precautions and instituted comprehensive procedures to keep people safe and fight the spread of COVID-19.”
Employees will be required to wear masks or face coverings, and encouraged to wear their own masks or face coverings.
“Please ensure face coverings meet Boeing’s safety and security guidance and are workplace appropriate,” Boeing told employees. “If you do not have a mask or face covering, we will provide one.”
In addition, Boeing said “voluntary” temperature-screening stations using no-touch thermal scanners will be set up for employees.
“We’ve conducted enhanced cleaning of our facilities and have implemented improved cleaning procedures,” Boeing told employees.
In a separate message, Calhoun told employees that safety measures also will include “operating practices to enable physical distancing such as staggered shift times, spread-out work areas and visual controls.”
There will also be constant visible reminders in the workplace for all employees to wash hands and monitor their own personal well-being. And shuttle buses that take workers from the outlying parking lots to the factory will seat only one person per row.
Boeing’s white-collar union, the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA), in a statement stressed the importance of wearing personal protective equipment and adhering to distancing guidelines.
“While we certainly hope all safety precautions are in place, experience tells us lapses will occur. This is human nature,” the union told its members, adding that they should immediately report any lapses to management and to the union.
Employees in the Puget Sound region on the 737, 747, 767 and 777 programs will return as early as third shift on April 20, with most returning to work by April 21. Employees for the 787 Dreamliner program will return as early as third shift April 23, with most returning to work by April 24.
Executives and senior managers will return earlier. On the 737, 747, 767 and 777 programs they’ll return April 17, while their counterparts on the 787 program will return April 22.
“This phased approach ensures we have a reliable supply base, our personal protective equipment is readily available and we have all of the necessary safety measures in place to resume essential work for our customers,” said Stan Deal, CEO of Boeing Commercial Airplanes.
Boeing’s return to work will likely trigger similar moves at many local companies in the aerospace supply chain that shut down when the jetmaker did.
Those included aircraft interior plants in Marysville, Bellingham and Newport owned by Safran of France, and Toray Composites America in Frederickson, which fabricates composite materials for Boeing.
Workers at those and other suppliers may now expect to hear news soon of their own restart dates.
Boeing’s dire business collapse
Boeing has been awaiting Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) clearance of proposed fixes for the 737 MAX’s flight control system that was implicated in two fatal crashes, as well as approval of a new pilot training course for the updated aircraft.
The next milestone in the approval process is for the FAA to take the jet up for several certification flights.
Those flights are still not scheduled. Boeing hasn’t yet completed its proposals for several necessary fixes, the most important being that it has to re-route several control wires to prevent an electrical short that could potentially swivel the jet’s horizontal tail without pilot action.
As part of the process to win approval from the FAA for its proposed wiring fix, Boeing has begun installing the modified wiring on several airplanes, the company said Thursday. That work will generate documentation that Boeing will submit to the FAA detailing how the wires should be re-routed by airline mechanics on the MAXs already delivered.
Boeing has said it expects final clearance for the MAX by midsummer and that it plans to begin low-rate production a month or two in advance of that. It appears management remains confident of that schedule.
In his message to employees, CEO Calhoun also addressed more broadly the dire business collapse caused by the spread of coronavirus and efforts to control it by restricting air travel.
“The impact of the global pandemic on the airlines has been like nothing anyone has ever seen,” Calhoun wrote. “In the U.S. alone, some 2,500 aircraft have been idled, and passenger volume is down over 95% compared to last year.”
He welcomed the $25 billion in government relief agreed upon by the Treasury Department and U.S. airlines this week, and said “the U.S. government can now turn its attention to the manufacturing base.”
Late last month, Calhoun in a television interview said Boeing might turn down government help if it came with strings such as the airlines accepted — the government took a small equity stake in each airline that took the aid.
But on Thursday, Calhoun clearly indicated that Boeing’s negotiations with the government have progressed to a point where the company will take the aid.
“Our industry will need the government’s support, which will be critical to ensuring access to credit markets and likely take the form of loans versus outright grants,” Calhoun told employees.
The airlines received grants to maintain payroll and benefits for employees, and it was those grants that required them to give up an equity stake to the government. Calhoun’s comment indicates Boeing will look instead for direct government loans and also government-backed guarantees for private funding.
He said Boeing’s leadership “continues to focus on the best ways to keep liquidity flowing through our business and to our supply chain until our customers are buying airplanes again.”
“We’re in uncharted waters. The impact of this global virus will change our business for years to come,” Calhoun concluded. “But we’re doing what it takes to emerge from it strong and competitive.”
Boeing also said Thursday that its South Carolina facilities, which closed later than the Washington state operations, will remain shut down for now.