Inside the strained union of Boeing and Spirit AeroSystems

Carving off its Kansas and Oklahoma operations was a strategic mistake, Boeing execs past and present conclude. Is buying back spirit AeroSystems in the cards?

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Release Date
May 3, 2023
Inside the strained union of Boeing and Spirit AeroSystems
In early April, a Spirit AeroSystems employee watching the assembly of 737 fuselages at the company’s sprawling Wichita, Kansas plant noticed something out of place. After some quick investigation, Spirit found that two of eight fittings underneath where the jet’s vertical fin meets the aft fuselage were installed using a manufacturing process that didn’t conform to approved specifications.

“That is the only way that we would have ultimately found out about it,” said Boeing CEO David Calhoun on April 26. The issue had been going on for the past four years and Boeing on April 14 said that it and Spirit would have to resolve the issue on every affected 737 Max and P-8A Poseidon14 before delivery. A mere 36 months after COVID crippled global aviation, formerly stricken airlines now can’t get airplanes fast enough as travel rebounds. Fixing the issue at Spirit and Boeing will keep about 9,000 seats, 45 to 50 737s, unavailable during the busiest summer travel season since 2019, though the company is maintaining its plans to increase output from 31 per month to 38 by the middle of the year.

It’s a frustrating hiccup as Boeing tries to build back its single-aisle output from a standstill in May 2020 when the company restarted its single-aisle assembly lines as it closed in on the ungrounding of the 737 Max. Yet, understanding the cause and its solution requires an examination of the tumultuous partnership between Boeing and Spirit. “It’s been a strained relationship for a long, long time,” said one retired top Boeing executive.

Related: Boeing’s long and inevitable road to South Carolina

The Air Current put the most important industrial relationship in U.S. aerospace under the microscope, revealing a bitter previously unreported 2018 lawsuit between the two and interviewing more than a dozen current, former and retired executives and senior staff at both companies to chronicle the complex relationship.

The 2005 divestiture of Wichita to create Spirit AeroSystems “ranks as the highest misstep” Boeing has ever made, according to one retired Boeing commercial airplane development executive. It was a view shared unanimously across TAC’s interviews as we explored the bigger strategic question: Is it time for Boeing to bring Spirit home again?

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