A defining test for Boeing

When Boeing sneezes, Snohomish County catches a cold.

Boeing watchers, like Cold War Kremlinologists, scrutinize every group photo, footfall or presidential cough to divine the future. The crisis of the 787 Dreamliner is more than a muffled hack, however.

A tangle of events, including the grounding of Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airlines’ Dreamliners and a potential strike by the Society of Professional Engineering and Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA), have merged into a slow-motion head-on. How to prevent the ensuing collision is now a career-defining test for the chief of Boeing Commercial Airlines, Ray Connor.

Punctuating the rising anxiety, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) grounded all U.S. Dreamliners Wednesday afternoon. “Before further flight, operators of U.S.-registered, Boeing 787 aircraft must demonstrate to the FAA that the batteries are safe,” the agency statement reads. “The FAA will work with the manufacturer and carriers to develop a corrective action plan to allow the U.S. 787 fleet to resume operations as quickly and safely as possible.”

SPEEA also weighed in Wednesday. As The Herald’s Michelle Dunlop reports, “The union representing 22,950 Boeing Co. engineers and technical workers is proposing the company extend major provisions of its contract to allow its members to focus on ‘rebuilding confidence’ in the jet maker’s troubled 787.”

For Boeing, a labor impasse crossed with the Dreamliner nightmare is the consummate crisis-management scenario. Connor, who took the reins from Jim Albaugh last summer and who previously served as the senior vice president for sales and customer support, wisely canceled a strategy meeting to triage the Dreamliner-SPEEA muddle.

The back story is instructive. Connor’s predecessor managed to breathe life into an uncertain, deadline-averse 787 Dreamliner program. Just as notable, he managed, along with Connor, to finesse a watershed agreement with the International Association of Machinists that ensured the 737 MAX would be manufactured in Renton. It was a signal feat of labor-management détente, although it was poor penance for Albaugh’s unpardonable sin of recommending that the second 787 assembly line go to Charleston, S.C.

Could Dreamliner woes be linked to excessive outsourcing or inadequate monitoring of the supply chain? If Connor is fearless and transparent from the very beginning, he will respond directly to these concerns and restore the confidence of engineers, shareholders and Washington residents.

Snohomish County can manage a cold; it’s the flu we’d like to avoid.

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