Boeing needs a “higher level of oversight,” says the top US aviation regulator

The new head of the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said his agency is halfway through a six-week audit of manufacturing at Boeing Co., but he already knows changes need to be made in how the government oversees the plane manufacturer.

Federal Aviation Administration Administrator Michael Whitaker noted that Boeing – under pressure from airlines to produce large numbers of planes – was not paying enough attention to safety.

Whitaker said the FAA has faced two challenges since Jan. 5, when an emergency door panel on a Boeing 737 MAX 9 exploded at 4,800 meters over Oregon.

“First, what is wrong with this plane? Second, what is happening to production at Boeing?” Whitaker told the US House Transportation Subcommittee. “There have been issues in the past. They don’t seem to have been resolved, so we feel we need a high level of oversight.”

Whitaker’s testimony before the subcommittee was wide-ranging. Committee leaders had asked questions they wanted answered, but few lawmakers stuck to the script — they asked about everything from the MAX 9 accident to raising the retirement age for pilots to migrants being housed at airports.

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The investigation included placing “about two dozen” inspectors at Boeing’s 737 plant in Renton, Washington, and “maybe six” at the Wichita, Kansas, plant, where supplier Spirit AeroSystems manufactures 737 fuselages, Whitaker said.

Whitaker said he expects the FAA will keep people at the Boeing and Spirit plants after the audit is completed, but he said the numbers have not yet been determined.

NTSB issues preliminary report

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

According to crash investigators, bolts that helped secure a panel to the frame of an Alaska Airlines plane were missing before the panel exploded last month.

The report included a picture from Boeing, which worked on the panel called the door plug. In the photo, three of the four screws that prevent the panel from moving up are missing. The fourth bolt location is obscured.

Two people from the National Transportation Safety Board hold the door plug from Alaska Airlines Flight 1282.
This photo released by the US National Transportation Safety Board shows the door seal from Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 on January 8, in Portland, Ore. Investigators say bolts that helped secure the panel of the Boeing jet were missing before the panel was blown off the plane. Halfway through the trip last month. (National Transportation Safety Board via AP, file)

Without the screws, there was nothing to prevent the panel from sliding up and separating from the “stop pads” that attached it to the airframe.

The initial report said the door plug, which was installed by supplier Spirit AeroSystems, arrived at a Boeing factory near Seattle with five damaged bolts around the plug. Boeing crews replaced the damaged pins, which required them to remove all four screws to open the plug.

Investigators said they are still trying to determine who allowed the Boeing crew to open and reinstall the door plug.

The NTSB has not announced a probable cause for the accident, which will come at the end of an investigation that could last a year or more.

“Whatever final results are reached, Boeing is responsible for what happened,” CEO David Calhoun said in a statement. “An event like this should not happen on a plane leaving our factory. We must simply do what is best for our customers and their passengers.”

The Federal Aviation Administration has prohibited Boeing from accelerating production of the 737 until the agency is satisfied with the quality issues.

Spirit AeroSystems, Boeing’s main supplier of Max aircraft, said in a statement that it is reviewing the NTSB’s initial report and working with Boeing and regulators “to continually improve our operations and meet the highest standards of safety, quality and reliability.” “

Section of Alaska Airlines Flight 1282, which is missing a panel.
This photo released by the National Transportation Safety Board shows a section of Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 missing a panel on a Boeing 737 MAX 9. (National Transportation Safety Board via AP, file)

Boeing, FAA under scrutiny

Boeing and the Federal Aviation Administration have been under renewed scrutiny since last month’s incident involving an Alaska Airlines Max 9. Criticism of both the company and its regulator stems from the deadly Max 8 crash in Indonesia and Ethiopia that killed 346 people.

Whitaker pledged that the FAA “will take appropriate and necessary actions” to keep the public safe while flying.

This may include close monitoring of Boeing. For many years, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has relied on employees of aircraft manufacturers to perform some safety-related work on aircraft manufactured by their companies.

Whitaker said the practice of self-checks — theoretically overseen by FAA inspectors — should be reconsidered, but he stopped short of saying it should be eliminated.

“The current system is not working because it does not provide safe aircraft,” Whittaker said. “Maybe we need to look at incentives to make sure that safety gets the appropriate first degree of consideration that it deserves.”

(tags for translation)Boeing Aviation

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