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Inside the factory where a key Boeing supplier builds the fuselage for the 737

The unfinished fuselage of a Boeing 737 at the Spirit AeroSystems factory in Wichita, Kan.
Courtesy of
Spirit AeroSystems
The unfinished fuselage of a Boeing 737 at the Spirit AeroSystems factory in Wichita, Kan.

WICHITA — It takes more than 200,000 fasteners to hold a Boeing 737 together, and many of them are installed manually by mechanics at Spirit AeroSystems.

“You can run your finger down and feel how smooth they are,” said master mechanic Tim Hamm, pointing at the metal skin of an unfinished fuselage. “And they’ve gotta be.”

This sprawling factory on the southern edge of Wichita has been making the fuselage for the Boeing 737 since the 1960s, more than 12,000 and counting — the best-selling commercial jet of all time.

But it’s never faced scrutiny quite like this, as Spirit and Boeing work to rebuild the trust of federal regulators and the flying public after a door plug panel blew off an Alaska Airlines jet in midair earlier this year.

On Thursday, Boeing presented a detailed plan to the Federal Aviation Administration that promises to improve manufacturing quality in its own factories, and also those of its suppliers.

During a tour of Spirit’s factory in Wichita, workers on the floor told NPR they were shocked and saddened by the door plug incident.

“It makes your heart sink,” said Hamm. “Everybody's got family on these planes. We don't want no incidents at all. We want the best quality we can out of this place, and no defects. We don't want nobody hurt.”

This factory in Wichita has been building the fuselage for the Boeing 737 since the 1960s.
Courtesy of / Spirit AreoSystems
Spirit AreoSystems
This factory in Wichita has been building the fuselage for the Boeing 737 since the 1960s.

The pace of work has slowed sharply

Hamm works in integration, where workers join different sections of the fuselage together. It’s his job to oversee newer employees, and to make sure those fasteners are installed correctly.

Unfinished fuselages float overhead, suspended from the ceiling. Workers move around the floor on golf carts and cargo bikes. At one point, this factory was turning out more than 50 fuselages per month.

“We just do what we were told,” Hamm said. “If there was 53 of them a month to do, we stayed and we got ‘em done. We worked, and we got every one of them done every day.”

The pace slowed sharply in January after a door plug panel blew out of a 737 Max jet in midair.

Federal investigators believe that four key bolts were missing when the plane left Boeing’s factory in Renton, Washington, thousands of miles away. But investigators say that panel had to be reopened in order to repair damaged rivets that were installed here, in Wichita.

Since then, the FAA has capped production of the 737, and Spirit is only turning out roughly 30 fuselages per month.

“It’s gonna be a good thing for the company,“ Hamm said.

There’s a new push to make sure all the work is right — before the fuselage moves to the next station in the factory, he said, cutting down on what people in the industry call traveled work.

At the same time, Boeing has added more inspectors in Wichita.

“We will only accept — they will only ship — a conforming fuselage,” CEO Dave Calhoun said in an interview with CNBC from Boeing’s factory in April. “Which means it comes in this door in near perfect shape, and then it moves through this factory at a much reduced cycle.”

At one point, Spirit was building more than 50 fuselages for the 737 per month in Wichita. Now the pace has slowed to about 30.
Courtesy of / Spirit AeroSystems
Spirit AeroSystems
At one point, Spirit was building more than 50 fuselages for the 737 per month in Wichita. Now the pace has slowed to about 30.

Two companies have a complicated history

Boeing and Spirit leaders both say the number of defects has declined since January, but that does not explain why so many were escaping from the factory to begin with. The answer may be tied up in the long and troubled history between the two companies.

“It's really hard to know where one begins and the other ends, to be honest with you,” said Larry Straub, a professor of management at Newman University in Wichita.

The 737 factory in Wichita used to be owned by Boeing, until the company sold it off in 2005 and it became part of Spirit. Since then, the two companies have clashed, as Boeing pushed its supplier to save money. Straub said his MBA students at Spirit felt the pressure.

“There's always tremendous, tremendous pressure on costs out there,” Straub said. “There's a point where that's healthy, but there's a point where it can break over and it becomes unhealthy.”

NPR spoke to nine former and current Spirit employees for this story. Some told us that quality at the Wichita plant had been declining for years, as finance experts replaced engineers in the ranks of management.

Many agreed some of the blame lies with Boeing, which was constantly pushing Spirit to keep costs low and production rates high.

Now Boeing has shifted direction. It’s in talks to buy Spirit and reintegrate the two companies. Spirit CEO Patrick Shanahan says a lot has changed already.

“We've made step function changes in how we inspect, where we inspect and how we do that together,” Shanahan said during an earnings call in May. “The benefits in the short term have been, we've seen about a 15% improvement in quality.”

Shanahan took over at Spirit last year after a series of embarrassing and expensive quality problems. “I think a good portion of the hard work is done,” he said on the earnings call.

An unfinished 737 fuselage is suspended from the ceiling at Spirit's Wichita factory.
Courtesy of / Spirit AeroSystems
Spirit AeroSystems
An unfinished 737 fuselage is suspended from the ceiling at Spirit's Wichita factory.

Spirit lost ‘priceless’ years of employee experience

But some former and current Spirit employees say there’s still more hard work ahead. They say the company lost experienced workers to layoffs and early retirement when production was slowed after two deadly 737 Max crashes in 2018 and 2019, and again during the COVID pandemic.

“Definitely. A lot of people that I work with took the buyout,” said Karmen Potts, who’s been working at the 737 factory in Wichita for 28 years.

“That experience just working in the field of aircraft, it can't be replaced,” Potts said in an interview. “I feel like the new people that's coming on, they're going to have to get on board with staying off their phones, paying attention to what they're doing.”

“I do feel the effects of a lot of people leaving Spirit that had that experience,” she said. “That’s priceless.”

The headquarters of Spirit AeroSystems in Wichita, Kan.
Joel Rose / NPR
The headquarters of Spirit AeroSystems in Wichita, Kan.

Still, Potts is proud of the work her team is doing, and says she does not see a lot of defects on their section of the fuselage.

“I feel like we do it the right way,” Potts said. “I feel like our inspectors are really good. And if there is a mistake made, you know, we go back, we fix it.”

Lately, Potts says, a lot of people in this factory are nervous. They’re not sure what’s going to happen if Boeing reacquires the plant, and they’re worried about the slower pace of production.

Spirit announced a few weeks ago that it would cut more than 400 hourly employees, because there just isn’t as much work to do. Potts says she’s more than ready for the pace at this factory to speed up again.

“We like work,” she said with a chuckle. “That means we could stay employed.”

Copyright 2024 NPR

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.