FAA probes potential flaws in Boeing’s manufacturing process

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A Boeing 737 Max 9 jetliner. (Image courtesy of Alaska Airlines)

The Federal Aviation Administration said Thursday that it is launching an investigation into whether aerospace giant Boeing followed rules to ensure the aircraft that it built were safe for operation.

“Boeing may have failed to ensure its completed products conformed to its approved design and were in a condition for safe operation in accordance with quality system inspection and test procedures,” the FAA said in a letter to the company.

The FAA grounded some Boeing 737 Max 9 aircraft Saturday after last week’s high-profile incident involving a jet operated by Alaska Airlines. A door-like panel flew off during a flight, leaving a gaping hole in the plane. The incident terrified passengers and renewed scrutiny of a company that manufactured planes involved in two fatal air crashes in 2018 and 2019. Thursday’s announcement marks the beginning of a broader probe into potential problems with the aircraft after the FAA said it was informed of “discrepancies” on other Max 9s.

“This incident should have never happened and it cannot happen again,” the agency said in a statement. “Boeing’s manufacturing practices need to comply with the high safety standards they’re legally accountable to meet.”

The National Transportation Safety Board is also investigating Friday’s incident.

In a statement, Boeing said, “We will cooperate fully and transparently with the FAA and the NTSB on their investigations.”

Jeff Guzzetti, a former FAA and NTSB investigator, said the sweep of the new investigation and the FAA’s statement indicate it is taking a tougher line with Boeing after the two fatal crashes. Investigations into those crashes faulted the agency for being too close to Boeing.

“That’s the new post-Max accident FAA,” Guzzetti said. “They are overtly communicating to the public that they’re in charge and taking this seriously.”

Boeing’s chief executive told employees during a company meeting Tuesday that the aerospace giant will acknowledge its “mistake” and be transparent as it tries to move forward after the grounding of dozens of its 737 Max 9 aircraft over safety concerns.

“We’re going to approach this No. 1 acknowledging our mistake,” Dave Calhoun said, according to excerpts provided by the company. “We’re going to approach it with 100% and complete transparency every step of the way.”

The FAA had announced that it was grounding 171 Boeing 737 Max 9 planes until formal inspections of the aircraft could be done. However, airlines have not been able to begin those inspections due to a lack of clarity from Boeing and the FAA, which has a procedure required for the planes to resume flying. Alaska Airlines and United Airlines are the only two U.S. carriers that have the Boeing Max 9 planes in their fleets.

The NTSB, which is leading the investigation into the accident Friday, has recovered the part known as a door plug, which investigators say will provide clues as to why it failed.

Boeing has had a string of quality problems with the Max in the past year, including issues with fittings to join the plane’s fuselage with its tail and improperly drilled holes on a bulkhead. In December, the FAA said that an overseas airline had reported finding a bolt with a missing nut on a rudder control system and that Boeing had found a loose bolt in the same system on a plane that it had yet to deliver.

The issues have prompted renewed scrutiny from lawmakers.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, chairwoman of the Science, Commerce and Transportation Committee, questioned Thursday whether the FAA’s own oversight of Boeing had been sufficient.

“It appears that FAA’s oversight processes have not been effective in ensuring that Boeing produces airplanes that are in condition for safe operation, as required by law and by FAA regulations,” Cantwell wrote in a letter to FAA Administrator Michael Whitaker.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, his party’s leader on the committee, which oversees aviation, has also asked for a briefing from the FAA and NTSB, his office said.

Cantwell wrote in her letter that she requested the agency begin a special audit last January related to Boeing’s production systems but was told by then-acting administrator Billy Nolen that one was not needed.

Given recent problems, Cantwell requested that the FAA provide copies of documents related to its audits of Boeing and Spirit AeroSystems, a Boeing supplier. Spirit has said it installed the door plug that broke off the Alaska Airlines flight last week. In particular, she wrote, she wanted more details about the FAA’s oversight of Spirit’s production system.

When it cleared Boeing’s 737 Max jets to resume service in 2020, the FAA said it would take responsibility for issuing airworthiness certificates to affirm that each newly manufactured plane was safe to fly – a task previously done by Boeing.

The FAA said Thursday that it still retains that role but did not respond to questions about what the process involved or whether it would conduct a review of its own oversight.

A bipartisan group of senators also wrote to Boeing on Thursday asking what steps the company was taking to identify safety issues in light of disclosures by United and Alaska that loose hardware and other problems were found in other Max 9 jets in their fleets.

“These findings suggest that the problem is bigger than one plane,” Sens. Peter Welch, D-Vermont, Edward J. Markey, D-Massachusetts, and J.D. Vance, R-Ohio, wrote. “Although there is no evidence of a systemic design flaw, Boeing’s quality assurance process appears to have been unable to identify the loose bolts – a serious oversight.”

For some travelers, the midair incident last week caused them to question their flight plans.

Jay Franzone, a frequent Alaska Airlines flier based in Honolulu, said that he often uses the airline to hop between islands in Hawaii and that Max 9s fly those routes. The 28-year-old said the incident has made him think twice about booking flights on the aircraft in the future, “especially since I’m traveling a long distance over water.”

“Boeing clearly hasn’t put safety first,” Franzone said. “It’s more of an apprehension and less of an outright fear, though, I would say.”

Robin Anderson has an upcoming flight on Alaska Airlines to Mexico. The Seattle-based acupuncturist, who has a 4-year-old daughter, said her anxiety has skyrocketed since the incident. She couldn’t stop thinking about what would happen to her or her daughter if a tragic accident took place.

“Even though they’ve been saying the risk is low, you begin to imagine what your child’s life would be like without you,” said Anderson, 43. “So this is exacerbating that quite a bit for me.”

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