WASHINGTON—As consumer fears and complaints mount over a 6.5 million-tire recall, Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. and Ford Motor Co. announced extraordinary measures to increase the supply of replacement tires.
Bridgestone/Firestone said Aug. 22 it would airlift P235/75R15 tires from parent company Bridgestone Corp. in Japan to replace the 15-inch Firestone Radial ATX, Radial ATX II and Wilderness AT tires being recalled.
The first airlift of 800 tires, via Thai Airways, took place Aug. 23 and will continue "nearly every day" for as long as necessary, the company said. A BFS spokeswoman said the company will airlift about 2,000 tires on 11 flights by Aug. 27 and expects to airlift about 5,000 altogether. This compares with the recall total of 6.5 million tires.
"We previously said we would complete this recall by spring," Bridgestone/Firestone CEO Masatoshi Ono said in a prepared statement. "But we are not satisfied with that. With this assistance from our parent company, our own stepped-up production in the U.S. and the support of other tire manufacturers as well as Ford, we are confident that we can beat that schedule."
This announcement came the day after Ford said it would shut down three of its assembly plants between Aug. 28 and Sept. 8 to divert the 70,000 tires that would otherwise go on new vehicles to the recall effort.
"There is a shortage of suitable 15-inch tires to use as replacements for our present vehicle owners," said Martin Inglis, vice president of Ford North America Consumer Business Group, in a prepared statement. While Ford believes the shortage is temporary, it is closing the assembly plants to fill in the gap until Bridgestone/Firestone and other tire makers ramp up production to fill demand, he added.
Two of the plants that will close—in St. Paul, Minn., and Edison, N.J.—produce the Ford Ranger pickup, while the third, in St. Louis, makes the Ford Explorer and Mercury Mountaineer sport-utility vehicles.
Some 6,000 workers will be affected by the closures, but they will receive 95 percent of their normal wages, minus overtime and commuting fees, Mr. Inglis said.
To announce these measures, Ford spent an estimated $5 million on a TV advertisement, featuring Ford Chairman and CEO Jacques Nasser, to air during prime-time broadcasts. "There are two things we never take lightly: your safety and your trust," Mr. Nasser says at the end of the commercial, which was filmed in the lobby of Ford headquarters in Dearborn, Mich.
Both companies announced their added measures in part to staunch the flow of criticism over both the potential dangers of the recalled tires when mounted on Ford vehicles and the perceived mishandling of the recall.
While motorists seethed over long waits and rainchecks at participating dealerships, news reports continued regarding fatal rollover accidents in Ford Explorers equipped with Firestone tires.
Since the recall began Aug. 9, there have been four rollover accidents reported in the U.S. involving tread separations on Firestone tires installed on Explorers. These crashes resulted in three deaths and five injuries, two of them critical.
These are over and above the more than 750 accidents, with 62 deaths and more than 100 injuries, reported thus far to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
As of Aug. 21, Bridgestone/Firestone said it had replaced more than 560,000 tires. The company said it will increase monthly capacity for the replacement tires to 350,000 by September and 500,000 by January, to be distributed through a network of 1,500 company-owned stores, 8,500 authorized Bridgestone/ Firestone dealers and 3,100 Ford dealerships.
In addition, both Bridgestone/Firestone and Ford said they were working with other tire companies to increase capacity as quickly as possible of 15-inch tires suitable to replace the Firestone ATX, ATX II and Wilderness models. In the commercial, Mr. Nasser said Ford has approved more than 30 different tire models as replacements for the Firestone lines.
A customer may request tires from a manufacturer other than Bridgestone/Firestone as his first choice if he chooses, said John Lampe, BFS executive vice president. "We have asked our stores and participating dealers to take care of the customer, and if this means supplying him with a competitor's tires, so be it," Mr. Lampe said.
Goodyear anticipates it will increase output in relevant tire lines fivefold by Oct. 1, a Goodyear spokesman said. "We've got molds being made right now, and every mold we have is being used right now," he said.
One of the tires Goodyear will supply is the Wrangler RT/S, which was standard equipment on the Ford Explorer from 1995 to 1997, he said.
A Michelin North America Inc. spokesman said Ford has approved 10 new Michelin fitments for the Explorer, including tires bearing the Michelin, BFGoodrich and Uniroyal brands. "We will increase production 225 percent for those specific models," he said, adding that company plants in Georgia, Oklahoma and Nova Scotia make those tires.
Besides the previously announced production increases from Goodyear and Michelin, Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. announced it had doubled production in three of its sport-utility and light truck tire lines to meet increased consumer demand, and Continental General Tire Inc. said it, too, was doubling production.
Continental General is putting all available molds in that size into service and ordering additional ones, CGT President and CEO Bernd Frangenberg said. CGT makes the P235/75R15 size in the Continental ContiTrac and General Grabber models as well as some private brands, he said.
Several tire companies issued press releases and placed messages on their Web sites touting their efforts to help consumers caught in the recall.
"Our plants are operating around the clock, seven days a week to meet this extraordinary consumer demand," said Joe Herget, Uniroyal tire brand manager, in one release.
"No one in the tire business has gone to the extraordinary measures that Goodyear has to meet the needs of consumers," read a message on the Goodyear Web site from John C. Polhemus, president of the North American Tire unit.
While all 15-inch Firestone Radial ATX and Radial ATX II have been recalled, for the Wilderness AT, only 15-inch tires made at BFS' plant in Decatur, Ill., are involved.
The Decatur plant is not producing any of the tires being offered as replacements in this recall and no longer makes any of those lines of tires, Mr. Lampe said. The company phased out production of those tires at Decatur beginning last January, but the decision was part of "the normal size and line moves between our plants," he said.
According to data released by Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone, the tire maker had 2,030 adjustment claims on P235/75R15 tires between 1991 and 2000, more than four times as many as in other SUV sizes combined. Claims for tread separations on original-equipment Wilderness AT tires were 22 per million, less than one-eleventh the 248 per million for OE Radial ATX tires.
Among the Wilderness AT tires, virtually the only failures were found in 15-inch tires from Decatur, whereas the same tires from facilities in Aiken, S.C., Wilson, N.C., and Joliette, Quebec, performed at "world-class" levels, said Tom Baughman, Ford engineering director for North American trucks.
"For the tires from the non-Decatur plants, the failure rate was zero," he said.
At the same time, Ford and Bridgestone/ Firestone declined to speculate on the reason for the Decatur Wilderness tire's higher failure rate, and specifically ruled out the idea that poor quality control or workmanship—whether arising from the 1995 strike at the facility, or for another reason—could be at fault.
"The Decatur plant has been in production since 1963, and we are very proud of the plant and the work force," Mr. Lampe said. "We have very strenuous (quality) policies and procedures that all of our people follow, and very detailed education and training programs."
Ford and Bridgestone Corp. have sent teams of experts to Decatur to discover the reasons for the high-failure rate in the 15-inch Wilderness AT tire that was built there. "The goal is for the experts to stay on site until they understand the root cause of the problem," a Bridgestone/Firestone spokeswoman said.
Both Bridgestone/Firestone and Ford published full-page newspaper ads Aug. 20, detailing what they are doing to expedite the recall. The BFS ad—in the form of a letter by Mr. Lampe—is a followup to an Aug. 16 ad in which the company explained its recall and reimbursement procedures.
"You can now replace your recalled tires with qualified tires at any tire retailer throughout the U.S.," Mr. Lampe wrote in the letter. "We made this decision because we want to do everything we can to satisfy you. This will make it faster and more convenient for you to replace your recalled tires."
This marked the third change BFS was compelled to make in its recall policies since Aug. 9. Originally, the company had said it would reimburse all customers up to $100 per tire for non-Bridgestone/Firestone tires purchased between Jan. 1 and Aug. 16, 2000, but after Aug. 16 urged tire replacement only at a Bridgestone/Firestone retailer or Firestone Service Center.
During a media conference call the afternoon of Aug. 17, Mr. Lampe and other BFS officials announced the indefinite extension of the reimbursement program past Aug. 16. That same morning, Judge Charles Wine of the Jefferson County Circuit Court in Louisville, Ky., issued an injunction ordering the company to extend the reimbursement policy, but Mr. Lampe and the others said they knew nothing about the injunction when asked about it.
In the earlier changes, BFS softened its plan to prioritize the recall in the four states—Arizona, California, Texas and Florida—where complaints had been heaviest, and backed off from its original stance that it would not replace any tire with a tread depth of less than 2/32-inch. A spokeswoman said the company would now accept any mounted tire brought in by the owner.
Ford, meanwhile, had its own hands full fending off criticism from consumer groups and others regarding the discrepancy between the recommended tire pressures Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone gave for the Radial ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires on the Ford Explorer.
On Aug. 14, a group of consumer activist groups, including Public Citizen, Safetyforum.com and Strategic Safety, held a press conference calling for the recall of all ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires, regardless of size and place of manufacture.
One of the major reasons they gave for their position was the Explorer's propensity to roll over, which they said was exacerbated by tire pressure. Ford recommended 26 pounds per square inch for the Firestone tires, they said, because a higher pressure made the vehicles more prone to roll over, whereas BFS recommended 30 psi, because a lower pressure might lead to tire damage and tread separation.
Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone denied those assertions, saying that a desire to enhance ride smoothness was the reason for Ford's lower pressure recommendation. Ford added that it now supports a pressure range of 26-30 psi for the tires.
Then, on Aug. 19, C. Tab Turner—a Little Rock, Ark., plaintiffs' attorney who specializes in tire and SUV cases and also advises Safetyforum.com—released an internal Ford document from October 1989 detailing the unsatisfactory stability ratings the company obtained testing the Explorer with tires inflated at 35 psi. The document, however, said the testing personnel expected to get better results at 26 psi.
Asked about the document during an Aug. 21 media conference call, Ford's Mr. Baughman said the document represented "work in progress" and not the final results of Ford's product testing on the Explorer.
"The specs had not been finalized yet," he said. The final document signing off on the stability testing, dated Dec. 21, 1989, tells a very different story, he added.
Mr. Baughman also quoted a statement from Goodyear, which said the tire maker had provided Ford with OE tires for 500,000 Explorers between 1995 and 1997, recommended a tire pressure of 26 psi and knew of no problems with the tires.
Meanwhile, Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone haven't yet decided what to do with the recalled tires once having received them.
Some customers said they were discomfited by dealers' knowing nothing about Bridgestone/Firestone's promise to disable the recalled tires. A company spokesman, however, said it wasn't the dealers' job to disable the tires.
"Bridgestone/Firestone will receive the recalled tires, log them in, take down information required by the government and disable the tires itself," he said.