Share story

As chief project engineer on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner program, Mike Sinnett slept with his BlackBerry set to wake him whenever a 787 Dreamliner in service anywhere in the world had any significant problem.

During the past seven months of intense scrutiny of the 787, Sinnett has been the top executive called upon to address the most technical details of the jet’s troubles.

He may get more sleep now. On Friday, Boeing announced a reshuffling of top engineering executives that moved the 50-year-old Sinnett sideways, out of the Dreamliner firing line.

Other changes announced in the internal memo by Mike Delaney, vice president of engineering at Boeing Commercial Airplanes, cement the restructuring of the engineering leadership into three distinct geographic centers: the Puget Sound region, South Carolina and Southern California.

“Since some of these moves involve changes to key people on the 777 and 787 programs, some may ask why we are making moves of this magnitude at this time,” Delaney wrote. “While there is never a perfect time to make changes, by making these moves, we are giving all of these individuals an opportunity to broaden their experience and to apply their knowledge and capability to other roles or on other programs.”

“These changes will increase the bench strength of our teams,” he added.

Sinnett, who joined Boeing in 1991 after working on fighter jets at McDonnell Douglas, led the development of all the 787’s airplane systems from the beginning of the program a decade ago.

And it was Sinnett who this year led the effort to design a fix for the main-battery overheating problems that grounded the 787 for almost four months.

With a soft-voiced assurance and an immediate command of every complex detail, he answered questions in public from journalists, members of Congress and National Transportation Safety Board

members on the intricacies of what had gone wrong and how engineers proposed to fix it.

He always steadfastly insisted on the fundamental soundness of the 787’s design.

After the grounding was lifted, it seemed Sinnett had put the 787’s troubles behind him until the July 12 fire aboard a parked Ethiopian Airlines 787 at Heathrow raised a new set of concerns.

Sinnett now steps sideways to a less stressful position as vice president of product development. That means he’s in charge of developing concepts for future airplanes, beyond the current pipeline of new jets.

Richard Aboulafia, aviation analyst with the Teal Group, said Sinnett likely needed a break from all the heat focused on the 787.

“Given all he’s been through, it’s tough to maintain this wartime footing,” he said.

Hans Weber, aviation-engineering consultant with Tecops International, said it’s wise to let Sinnett decompress yet remain in a role where he can continue to grow.

Replacing Sinnett as 787 chief project engineer is Bob Whittington, who previously held that post on the 777 program.

Larry Schneider, 50, who had led product development, will take Whittington’s position as chief project engineer on the 777.

Boeing spokesman Marc Birtel said the swapping around of executives between the roles of developing new planes and manufacturing the existing models is deliberate, designed to ensure “the ongoing improvement and evolution of our current product lines and the thoughtful development of our future products.”

Other executive changes are aimed at aligning the engineering-leadership structure with Boeing’s intention to diversify its engineering workforce to three separate design centers around the country.

Todd Zarfos, 50, who previously led engineering on the 747-8 and most recently was head engineer in the Boeing unit that provides aftermarket support to airline customers, has been named the vice president of engineering functions and will lead the Washington state design center.

Through four sets of contract negotiations, Zarfos has maintained a respectful relationship with Boeing’s white-collar union, the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA).

SPEEA executive director Ray Goforth welcomed his new appointment as “a positive development.”

Zarfos replaces Dan Mooney, who last month was named vice president of the Boeing South Carolina engineering design center.

In May, Tom Croslin was named to lead the newly established engineering design center in Southern California.

In his internal message, Delaney said the moves will position the engineering leadership to handle the shifts as the company “transitions to three independent but cooperative engineering design centers based in Washington state, Southern California and South Carolina.”

In one further change, John Hamilton, 52, who is vice president of regulatory administration, has been given added responsibility for aviation safety and aviation security.

Dominic Gates: (206) 464-2963 or