Spirit Aerosystems in Wichita, Kansas, said Wednesday that for a second time this year it will temporarily furlough about 900 employees who work on production of parts for the Boeing 737 MAX.
Spirit blamed the three-week furloughs without pay on “the continued impacts to the airline industry due to the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting uncertainty surrounding the return to service of the 737 MAX.”
Spirit produces the entire fuselage of the 737 MAX in Wichita, as well as the pylons that hold the engine on the wings, the nacelle and thrust reverser that encase the engine, and the leading edges of the wings.
At the end of May, Boeing very slowly restarted final assembly work in Renton on the still-grounded MAX, anticipating clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for the jet to resume passenger service by early fall.
According to a person with knowledge of Boeing’s progress toward winning FAA approval, the jetmaker has told some airlines that long-delayed FAA certification flights needed for that clearance could happen around the end of this month.
And in a sign that Boeing sees the MAX’s return to service only months away, it has begun sharing information about the pilot training that will be required when clearance is given.
Nevertheless, any MAX ramp-up in Wichita could be even slower than in Renton.
In May, Boeing cut to 125 the planned number of fuselages it wants delivered this year from Wichita to the Renton final assembly plant. Yet Spirit built more than that many fuselages last year and has them sitting in storage ready to go.
Spirit said the three-week furloughs are necessary “to help safeguard the financial health and stability of the company.”
“We acknowledge the hardship this will have on our employees, and we’re thankful for their commitment and understanding,” the statement added.
Last year, when Boeing had slowed its MAX production rate from 52 jets per month down to 42 per month, hoping for a quick return of the MAX to passenger service, it instructed Spirit to continue to build parts at the higher rate. As a result, hundreds of MAX fuselages stacked up in storage in Wichita.
At the beginning of this year, when Boeing finally pushed out the projected MAX return to mid-year, Spirit stopped production. And in April, after Boeing suspended all production at its Puget Sound-area plants to contain the spread of COVID-19, Spirit shut down its own parts plants in Wichita and Oklahoma for three weeks.
Spirit has already cut 1,450 jobs in Wichita as the COVID-19 pandemic slashed demand for airplane parts, with additional reductions at other Spirit locations.