‘They Will Bounce Back’: In Seattle, Where the Boeing Max Is Built, They’ve Recovered Before

SEATTLE — Just south of Seattle’s Boeing Field and the Museum of Flight sits another shrine to aviation, Randy’s Restaurant. Model airplanes are suspended from the 24-hour diner’s ceiling, with flight manuals and various dog-eared aerospace tomes strewn about its candy-colored booths.

Given its proximity to a major outpost of the Boeing Company, Randy’s has served more than its fair share of chicken-fried steak and brick-shaped hash browns to Boeing employees and their families, among them Ron Russell.

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Mr. Russell’s son works at Boeing’s aircraft assembly plant in the city of Everett, where he used to install doors on 747s. His mother also worked for Boeing. He doesn’t have to think back too far to remember 1971, when a global economic slowdown and skyrocketing oil prices prompted the company to lay off more than half its work force, sending Seattle into a tailspin.

Now, as the company grapples with a pair of fatal crashes involving its most popular airplane, the 737 Max, Mr. Russell points to Boeing’s record of resilience as proof that it will be able to overcome the latest troubles. Will its engineers be able to design a solution to the technical conundrum that threatens the company’s best-selling jet ever, which now has been grounded worldwide? “Sure,” Mr. Russell said, without missing a beat.

A total of 189 people died aboard a Lion Air flight that went down in Indonesia in October 2018, while a second fatal Max crash in Ethiopia last month claimed 157 lives. On Friday, as preliminary findings from the Ethiopia crash cast further doubt on Boeing’s instructions to pilots flying the new Max planes, the company announced that it would reduce monthly production of its 737 jets to 42 a month from 52.

Where downtown Seattle is booming with expensive high-rise condo towers, Renton, a suburb of slightly more than 100,000 people, still sports single-family homes in its small-townish core. The city’s population tripled during World War II, and “Boeing was a huge part of that,” said Elizabeth Stewart, executive director of the Renton History Museum.

The one-way roads that permeate downtown Renton are, said Ms. Stewart, a relic of World War II-era Boeing, which lobbied for the street grid so it could get workers in and out more quickly.

“They’ve been here for over 75 years; they’re iconic for our city,” said Renton’s mayor, Denis Law. “There was a period of time where there were very few people in the immediate region who either didn’t work for the Boeing Company or knew someone who did.”

These days, though, Boeing is no longer the only fish in the Cedar River, which flows beneath Renton’s downtown library.

The city has welcomed a number of new health care companies, as well as high-tech companies like Wizards of the Coast and industrial stalwarts like Paccar, the truck manufacturer. Across the street from Boeing’s Renton plant, on Lake Washington’s southern waterfront, is a new 712,000-square-foot office complex that city officials hope will attract new high-tech tenants.

Some of those one-way streets are being transformed into two-way streets.

Still, the question of what caused the crash of the two 737 MAXs and whether Boeing engineers bear any responsibility has been a near-constant topic of conversation — along with questions about a company that has changed significantly since many old-timers around town worked there. The company’s corporate headquarters moved to Chicago in 2001. Some aircraft parts are now manufactured as far away as Asia.

“Decisions at Boeing are typically conducted in tribal fashion, rather than openly using reason and logic,” said Mr. Langmann, who worked in offices down the street from the Renton plant for much of his career. “Project management, a focus at Boeing, should be more than managing cost and schedule,” he said. “You should understand something of the project. Otherwise you can’t manage product performance, value or safety.”

On Friday, when it announced the slowdown of its production of the 737, the company also said it would establish a new committee on its board of directors to review how it develops and builds aircraft.

Dave Hayes is a recently retired Boeing pilot who moved to the Seattle area more than a decade ago from California, where he worked for Northwest Airlines. He was hunched over a pale ale one recent afternoon at Trencher’s, a sports bar in a large mixed-use complex called The Landing, which opened in 2007 on what used to be Boeing property in Renton.

“They will bounce back. They’re number one. They just let a money issue cloud their mind,” said Mario Terrell, a wellness nurse who comes from a family that includes several current and former Boeing workers — including his mother. He said he fears the company cut corners to save money. “My mom’s very upset,” he said.

That she is. Jacquelyn Terrell, now 86, was a longtime shop steward at Boeing’s Renton plant and is still in touch with many of her former co-workers and the union.

“Everyone is shocked,” she said. “That’s not Boeing. Something’s wrong. They need to dig further. There’s a lack of pilot training.”

Having seen many of the troubles the company has faced in past years, most people here seem to expect that whatever the current problem, Boeing’s designers will, as they always have, engineer a way out of it.

Mr. Russell, who used to build truck cabs for a Paccar subsidiary in Renton and Seattle, recalled “the battery fiasco” in 2013, when it was discovered that the batteries in Boeing’s just-rolled-out 787 Dreamliner were prone to overheating; it led to a three-month grounding of the plane. Boeing, he noted, swiftly developed a fix and got the fleet back on track.

“It was a big deal,” Mr. Russell said. “But they made a bigger deal out of it than it was.”


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