The Federal Aviation Administration says it will increase oversight of Boeing and audit production of the 737 Max 9 jetliner after a panel blew off an Alaska Airlines plane in midflight last week, the latest in a string of mishaps at the troubled aircraft maker.
The FAA said Friday that it would judge whether Boeing and its parts suppliers followed approved quality procedures.
Amid reports of continued manufacturing problems, the FAA also said it’s reconsidering a longstanding practice of relying on employees at aircraft manufacturers to perform some safety analysis of planes. Members of Congress criticized the practice of deputizing Boeing employees as inspectors after two deadly crashes involving Boeing 737 Max 8 planes in 2018 and 2019.
“It is time to re-examine the delegation of authority and assess any associated safety risks,” said new FAA Administrator Mike Whitaker. “The FAA is exploring the use of an independent third party to oversee Boeing’s inspections and its quality system.”
Whitaker suggested that the FAA might find “a technical, nonprofit organization” to help oversee Boeing’s work. The agency also said it will increase monitoring of problems reported on Max 9 flights.
He told CNBC Friday that the FAA will also step up its oversight of Spirit AeroSystems, which supplies Boeing with fuselages for the 737 Max.
“We know there are problems with manufacturing, there have been problems in the past, but these are continuing,” Whitaker said. “This is a brand-new aircraft, it has just come off the line and it had significant problems, and we believe there are other manufacturing problems.”
In a statement, Arlington, Virginia-based Boeing said it will cooperate with the FAA. “We support all actions that strengthen quality and safety, and we are taking actions across our production system,” the company said.
Spirit also said it’s supporting the FAA actions. “Spirit’s top priorities are quality, product integrity and compliance,” a company statement said.
The FAA’s intensifying focus on safety at Boeing comes just a day after the agency announced an investigation into whether the manufacturer failed to make sure a fuselage panel that blew off was safe and manufactured to meet the design that regulators approved.
The National Transportation Safety Board is focusing its investigation on plugs used to fill spots for extra doors when those exits are not required for safety reasons on Boeing 737 Max 9 jetliners.
One of two door plugs on an Alaska Max 9 blew out shortly after the plane took off from Portland, Oregon, a week ago, leaving a hole in the plane. The cabin lost pressure and the plane was forced to descend rapidly and return to Portland for an emergency landing. No serious injuries were reported.
Whitaker said the FAA in the past used to do a lot more aircraft-manufacturing inspections, but legislation moved those to the private sector. Sometimes that works, but at times it doesn’t. The third party, he said, is just an option. “It may not be the right option, but I think we need to have that debate.”
Legislators criticized the designated inspector program after the Max crashes overseas, contending the inspectors were still paid by Boeing and beholden to the company, not the FAA.
But in 2019, then-acting FAA administrator Dan Elwell said replacing the use of company workers for safety-certification work would require the agency to add 10,000 employees at a cost of $1.8 billion a year. That all but ended consideration of FAA doing the work.
Criticism of the inspector program resumed Friday after the FAA’s actions were announced. “It should not have taken a near catastrophe for the FAA to review its use of the (designated inspector) program, which effectively lets the fox guard the hen house,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut.
Former congressman Peter DeFazio, who chaired the House committee that investigated the Max crashes, said Friday that the FAA’s actions are needed to rein in quality and safety problems at Boeing.
“This an extraordinary step by the administrator of the FAA, one that is long overdue,” he said. “The possibility that Boeing will lose the (deputization of its employees) and be subject to independent third party oversight — and I would expect that will have to be paid for by Boeing — that would be a massive, unprecedented step to force the unwilling executives at Boeing to shape up the company.”
DeFazio said that in the aftermath of the crashes, Congress changed the law so the inspectors would report to the FAA rather than Boeing supervisors, and that all future inspectors be approved by the agency. But given the Alaska Airlines case, it’s clear that failed as well, he said.
“So I think we’re looking at a whole new way of doing this with a totally independent entity — not people who work for Boeing — and handing Boeing the bill because of their malfeasance, would be warranted,” he said.
After the panel blew off the plane, the FAA grounded all Max 9s equipped with the door plugs, forcing Alaska and United to cut flights. The aircraft remain grounded while the NTSB and the FAA continue their investigation.
Since then, the FAA was told of other problems on the Max 9. Alaska and United reported finding loose bolts on door plugs that they inspected in some of their other Max 9 jets.
NTSB investigators said this week they have not been able to find four bolts that are used to help secure the 63-pound door plug. They are not sure whether the bolts were there before the plane took off.
On Thursday, the FAA asked Boeing to respond within 10 business days and tell the agency “the root cause” of the problem with the door plug and steps the company is taking to prevent a recurrence.
The door plugs are installed by Spirit, but investigators have not said which company’s employees last worked on the plug on the Alaska plane that suffered the blowout.
The day after the blowout, the FAA grounded all 65 Max 9s operated by Alaska and 79 used by United Airlines, until Boeing develops inspection guidelines and planes can be examined. Alaska canceled all flights by Max 9s through Saturday.
The incident on the Alaska plane is the latest in a string of mishaps for Boeing that began in 2018, with the first of two crashes of Max 8 planes in Indonesia and Ethiopia — and more than four months apart — that killed a total of 346 people.
Max 8 and Max 9 planes were grounded worldwide for nearly two years after the second crash. Since then, various manufacturing flaws have at times held up deliveries of Max jets and a larger Boeing plane, the 787. Last month, the company asked airlines to inspect their Max jets for a loose bolt in the rudder-control system.