Among workers streaming through the turnstile gate Monday at the Renton plant, reactions to the disaster seemed a mixture of sadness for the victims along with deep uncertainty — about the cause of the accident, but also what it might mean for their employer.
A day after the crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 claimed 157 lives, workers at the Renton plant where the doomed Boeing 737 MAX 8 airliner was built were only just coming to grips with the grim toll of the accident, the second for company’s top-selling jet.
“Everybody feels it,” said one worker who had just finished up a shift on the 737 assembly line. “It’s like being under a dark cloud in there.” Like other employees interviewed Monday afternoon, he declined to give his name, in part because the company forbids workers from talking to the media.
But employees said the accident was being widely discussed inside the plant, where workers are turning out 52 of the new aircraft every month. And among those workers streaming through the turnstile gate on Logan Avenue Monday afternoon, reactions to the disaster seemed a mixture of sadness for the victims along with deep uncertainty — about the cause of the accident, but also what it might mean for their employer.
The new 737 MAX is one of the company’s most successful aircraft in terms of initial sales. It’s also key to the livelihoods of most of the roughly 12,000 men and women who punch the clock at the Renton plant. As of January, the backlog for the MAX was 4,661 aircraft. “It’s our bread and butter,” said a worker who was grabbing a quick smoke before heading through the turnstile to start his shift. “We’re definitely curious,” added his colleague, whose shift had just ended.
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Many workers would discuss the incident only sparingly, if at all. “We know which line it came from,” said one worker, referring to the three assembly lines that crank out the new 737 MAX and the remaining production of its older sibling, the 737 NG. He declined to divulge any more specifics, saying, “We really can’t be talking about this.”
But several others expressed frustration with Boeing’s efforts to ramp up production of the 737 to a monthly output of 57 later this year. Though none blamed the pace of production for either crash, some said the accident has only added to the stress some workers already felt from working so much overtime.
“They’re making a lot of airplanes, and they’re a little overwhelmed,” said an older employee. Added another: “It’s push, push, shove, shove and whatever it takes.”
Several newer hires worried that the accidents might lead to layoffs if airlines or regulators began grounding the aircraft on a massive scale. Older workers with more seniority talked about the crash’s impact on the price of Boeing stock, which features heavily in some workers’ retirement accounts.
Boeing share prices plunged 12 percent Monday morning before recovering more than half that drop by day’s end. Some workers “took huge losses this morning,” said one employee, adding that he wasn’t sure whether he should sell his stock or hope it recovers. “It’s a gamble.”
Several workers rejected the idea that the crash was in any way Boeing’s fault. Others took issue with media reports comparing the Ethiopian Airlines crash with the Lion Air crash of a 737 MAX in October, and noted that investigators have barely begun to probe the second crash and haven’t determined the cause of the first.
“Yes, you had two similar incidents — and they are similar — but until you crack open the black box, it’s all speculation,” said one.
Most workers interviewed expressed confidence in Boeing’s capacity to determine the cause of the crash and, if necessary, make any corrections. “In the short term, it’s going to affect morale and it’s going to affect their stock,” said one worker as he walked toward the turnstile to begin his shift. But in the long term, he added, “You have to have faith in the process.”
For still other workers, the crash was an occasion to see their jobs in a new light. “It’s an enlightening moment when you realize that each little part matters,” said one. “It could have been us. It could have been a supplier. No one knows.”
Whatever their opinions, everyone was somber. “It affects us,” said one. Another became visibly emotional as he discussed the accident. “The only thing I can really tell you right now is that it’s sad in there,” he said, nodding at the huge assembly plant. “Everybody — new people, old people — no one in there is having a good time today.”