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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane-area Boeing suppliers begin to feel pinch of 737 Max grounding

As Boeing’s wait for federal approval of proposed fixes to the troubled 737 Max jetliner grows longer, the trickle-down effect continues to strain several smaller Spokane-based companies that supply parts ranging from from the airplane’s overhead storage compartments to its seats.

Chicago-headquartered Boeing has the aircraft’s fuselages built in Wichita, Kansas, then shipped to Renton, Washington, where the 737 is assembled. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Boeing started to contract most of the interior work of its airplanes to other companies, said Rick Taylor, vice president of Altek Inc. of Liberty Lake.

Taylor’s company manufactures window shade assemblies, power supply housings and proximity switches for the interior of the 737 Max. But most of that work, which is done in conjunction with Collins Aerospace Systems, has been put on hold after fatal crashes in 2018 and 2019 raised alarms about the aircraft’s safety. The 737 Max was subsequently grounded by federal officials.

“It’s had a significant impact,” Taylor said. “When this reared its ugly head, we shifted gears and said, ‘This could be a prolonged period of time. What else can we do to fill the void?’ That’s what we have been actively doing.”

The slowdown has been blamed for the recent layoffs of about 20 union-represented employees at Triumph Composite Systems on the West Plains, which is among a half-dozen area companies that contract to do work on the airplane.

Steve Warren, business representative for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, Local Lodge 86, said he hopes whatever decisions are made on the 737 Max are made soon.

“Hiring people back in aerospace is always cyclical,” Warren said. “To get (20 skilled employees) back in the door will take time and training.”

Mark Norton, chairman of the Inland Northwest Aerospace Consortium, or INWAC, said he hasn’t heard of many other layoffs as a result of the Boeing stalemate.

“Our group doesn’t encompass everybody in the area,” said Norton, who works as an aerospace consultant. “But if this continues to persist, we will see more impact from it. If it stays on track by June, I think it could be more serious.”

Norton said INWAC has about 25 Spokane-area company members who do some sort of aerospace manufacturing. Layoffs for a lack of work would compound several problems, he said.

“The employment market is pretty good for people looking for work,” Norton said. “One of the concerns is that if we have a protracted layoff, will (those laid-off workers) drift to other industries? Once Boeing cranks back up, they won’t have the supply chain. That’s the big concern in the industry right now.”

About 55 percent of Altek’s business is in the aerospace field, Taylor said.

“Unfortunately, a lot of that is on the Max program,” he said.

Altek builds the aircraft interiors based on plans developed by Collins Aerospace.

“They design it and we do the manufacturing,” Taylor said. “But what Altek is working on is to help them to transition from high-cost machine products to injected-mold products using lightweight-robust-carbon-filled and glass-filled injection molded parts.”

While Boeing waits for the Federal Aviation Administration to approve the mandatory fixes and airlines then start the process of training pilots to fly the upgraded aircraft, Taylor has looked for other work for his skilled employees.

“It is disappointing. The last thing we are going to do is lay anybody off as a result of it,” he said. “We are not going to sit back and rest on our laurels until the Max comes back. You go out and find different things to do.”

And while Boeing says publicly it hopes to have the airplanes approved for a return to service later this year, Taylor said his sources are saying it could be late in 2121 before everything is ironed out.

“I expect optimism out of Boeing, for all the reasons I mentioned,” Taylor said.

But unlike past disruptions, Boeing representatives have had regular communication with the company’s subcontractors, he said.

“It’s a different side of Boeing that I haven’t seen before,” Taylor said. “They are doing everything they can to keep the supply chain intact. I’m grateful for that.”