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 Co., 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.
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 workforce, sending Seattle into a tailspin.
Now, as the company grapples with a pair of fatal crashes involving its most popular airplane, the 737 Max, 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,” 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.
It is hard to find a place in Seattle where people don’t have some personal or family connection to the giant aircraft manufacturer, the largest private employer in Washington state, and that means plenty of people worried about whether the back-to-back crashes will affect orders for a plane upon which the company has banked much of its near-term future.
The company is everywhere: Boeing Field, just south of downtown Seattle, is still used for testing and delivery of Boeing planes. Wide-body jets are assembled at the company’s giant factory in Everett, to the north. The 737s are put together at the 1.1 million-square-foot plant in Renton, 12 miles southeast of downtown Seattle. Renton is also home to the headquarters of Boeing’s commercial airplane group.
“One of my very best friends from first grade, both his parents worked for Boeing,” said Ed Prince, a City Council member in Renton. “Seattle, for so many years, was a company town — Boeing was it.”
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 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 Co. 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.
Since countries grounded the Max plane, and after Boeing paused deliveries of new jets, a backlog has been created on its production lines in Renton.
Boeing employees are not allowed to publicly discuss the crash investigations, so many of those outside must rely on snippets of information from friends, or news reports. Lately, many of those reports have focused on an automated system designed to prevent stalls that may have caused the pilots to lose control of the planes — though no definitive cause has been determined.
Greg Langmann, 60, who spent 35 years with the company as an engineer before retiring in 2017, said he came to believe that the culture at the company was in need of revamping.
“Decisions at Boeing are typically conducted in tribal fashion, rather than openly using reason and logic,” said 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.
Hayes is still in close contact with his ex-colleagues, who he says are concerned about the prospect of increased oversight by Congress and the Federal Aviation Administration after criticism that the FAA allowed Boeing to do much of its own safety analysis.
“My personal opinion is Congress has never provided funding to the FAA to give them in-depth knowledge of how some of the intricate systems of airplanes work,” Hayes said. “They’re not as involved on a daily basis as the pilots and engineers at Boeing are.”
On a recent afternoon at Liberty Park in Renton, several people had gathered for a high-school baseball game, and once again, talk turned to the crash inquiries and the increasing signs that Boeing’s design could have played a role.
“They will bounce back. They’re No. 1. 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.
Russell 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,” Russell said. “But they made a bigger deal out of it than it was.”