Boeing needs ‘increased level of oversight,’ top US aviation regulator says

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The new head of the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) says his agency is midway through a six-week audit of manufacturing at Boeing, but he already knows changes need to be made to the how the government supervises the aircraft manufacturer.

FAA Administrator Michael Whitaker suggested that Boeing — under pressure from airlines to produce large numbers of planes — is not paying enough attention to safety.

Whitaker said the FAA has faced two challenges since Jan. 5, when an emergency door panel blew up a Boeing 737 Max 9 jetliner 15,000 feet above Oregon.

“First, what’s wrong with this plane? But second, what’s going on with production at Boeing?” Whitaker told a U.S. House of Representatives transportation subcommittee. “There have been problems in the past. They don’t seem to be resolved, so we think we need to have an increased level of oversight.”

Whitaker’s testimony before the subcommittee was wide-ranging. The panel’s leaders had laid out the questions they wanted to answer, but few lawmakers stuck to the script: They asked questions about everything from the Max 9 incident to raising the retirement age of pilots passing by migrants accommodated in airports.

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Whitaker said the investigation involved placing “about two dozen” inspectors at the Boeing 737 plant in Renton, Wash., and “maybe half a dozen” at a plant in Wichita , in Kansas, where supplier Spirit AeroSystems manufactures 737 fuselages.

Whitaker said he expects the FAA to keep staff at the Boeing and Spirit plants once the audit is completed, but he said the numbers have not been determined.

NTSB releases preliminary report

The comments from Whitaker, who took over the FAA about three months ago, came hours before National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators released a preliminary report on last month’s incident.

Bolts that attached a panel to the frame of the Alaska Airlines plane were missing before the panel exploded last month, according to accident investigators.

The report included a photo of Boeing, which worked on the panel, called a door stopper. In the photo, three of the four bolts that hold the panel from going up are missing. The location of the fourth bolt is hidden.

Two people from the National Transportation Safety Board hold the door stopper of Alaska Airlines Flight 1282.
This photo released by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board shows the door stopper of Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 on Jan. 8 in Portland, Oregon. Investigators say bolts that helped secure the panel to the Boeing jetliner were missing before the panel flew off the plane. in full flight last month. (National Transportation Safety Board via AP, file)

Without the bolts, there was nothing to stop the panel from sliding up and coming loose from the “stop pads” that secured it to the cell.

The preliminary report says the door plug, installed by supplier Spirit AeroSystems, arrived at the Boeing factory near Seattle with five damaged rivets around the plug. A Boeing crew replaced the damaged rivets, requiring the removal of all four bolts to open the plug.

Investigators said they were still determining who authorized the Boeing crew to open and reinstall the door plug.

The NTSB has not declared a probable cause for the crash — that will come at the end of an investigation that could last a year or more.

“Whatever the final conclusions, Boeing is responsible for what happened,” CEO David Calhoun said in a statement. “An event like this should not happen on an aircraft leaving our factory. We simply must do better for our customers and their passengers.”

The FAA has barred Boeing from ramping up production of the 737s until the agency is satisfied with the quality issues.

Spirit AeroSystems, which is Boeing’s primary supplier on the Max, said in a statement that it was reviewing the NTSB’s preliminary report and working with Boeing and regulators “on continuous improvement of our processes and compliance of the highest standards of safety, quality and reliability. “

A section of Alaska Airlines Flight 1282, missing a panel.
This image released by the National Transportation Safety Board shows a section of Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 that is missing a panel on a Boeing 737 Max 9. (National Transportation Safety Board via AP, file)

Boeing and the FAA under surveillance

Boeing and the FAA have come under renewed scrutiny since last month’s incident on Alaska Airlines’ Max 9. Criticism of the company and its regulator dates back to fatal Max 8 crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia that killed 346 people.

Whitaker promised that the FAA would “take appropriate and necessary measures” to ensure the safety of the flying public.

This could mean closer monitoring of Boeing. For many years, the FAA has relied on employees of aircraft manufacturers to perform certain safety-related work on aircraft built by their companies.

Whitaker said the practice of self-monitoring — in theory overseen by FAA inspectors — should be reconsidered, but he stopped short of saying it should be abandoned.

“The current system doesn’t work because it doesn’t deliver safe aircraft,” Whitaker said. “Perhaps we should look at incentives to make sure safety gets the first consideration it deserves.”

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