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Boeing says it is pausing delivery to its customers of new 737 MAX airplanes. But it says it will continue building them while assessing the situation. Until now, Boeing has been churning out the popular model at a plant near Seattle employing more than 10,000 workers. NPR's Martin Kaste reports.
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: This is the Boeing plant in Renton, a suburb of Seattle on the southern shore of Lake Washington. They built B-29 bombers here in World War II, then 707s, 727s and Boeing's long-term cash cow, the 737. The new planes are green when they're still unpainted, and you see them lined up along the airstrip and elsewhere out on the tarmac, some of them still being finished or tested.
Finishing planes outdoors is not ideal. It happens when a plane is hurried out of the plant even though a part or a test is still missing. And there've been a lot of planes outside lately, especially last year as glitches in the supply chain collided with the company's ambitious production schedule. Workers inside the plant are not allowed to speak to reporters. But if you talk to recent retirees, they say the unrelenting pace has taken a toll.
ARNIE WALTER: When I first started, they only made, like, 18 planes a month. Now there are over 45 planes a months.
KASTE: Coming out of this factory.
KASTE: Arnie Walter is getting his '83 Mercedes serviced at a shop near the 737 plant. He used to work on the supplier side of things in there. And he thinks Boeing's quality assurance, QA as he puts it, has suffered.
WALTER: I would say that if it ain't Boeing, I ain't going because, you know, QA is so good. But I'm kind of worrying now that they're pushing the production so high. Sometimes when they're pushing production, it's - oh, this guy always does good work. They sign it off without really, really doing the due diligence.
KASTE: There's no indication yet that QA is connected to the cause of these crashes. Right now the focus is on flight control software, which was meant to compensate for the tendency of the plane's nose to rise, which itself was the result of Boeing's decision to marry newer, bigger engines to an older airframe design.
JON OSTROWER: When you're trying to adapt an existing design and adapt it over and over and over again, you know, there are unintended consequences.
KASTE: Jon Ostrower is editor-in-chief of Air Current, an online publication focused on aviation. He says Boeing's strategy of incremental updates to a decades-old plane allowed them to get the MAX to market more quickly. But it also resulted in a plane that wouldn't have been designed this way if they'd started from scratch.
OSTROWER: You'd do it differently. You absolutely would. There are new generations of certification requirements that Boeing does not have to abide by because things have remained unchanged on the 737 over time.
KASTE: The question is whether the MAX will now be seen as too much of a design compromise and how that might affect demand. Bill Keough doubts that Boeing will be able to maintain production at the same fast clip. He's managing director of the supply chain transportation logistics master's program at the University of Washington. He's also consulted for Boeing in the past. And he says the company's ultra-lean manufacturing style just makes things more complex.
BILL KEOUGH: When something like this happens, the effects will ripple all down through the supply chain because - you know, I don't know how long this will take to be resolved. But I don't think Boeing is going to fill up its facility with parts it can't use.
KASTE: As to all those new green-colored planes, they probably won't just stack up in Renton. The FAA's ordered grounding of the MAX includes an exception for production-related flights. So Boeing can fly them to some other holding area - maybe out in the desert - until the plane's future becomes clear. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.