The new chief of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said his agency is midway through a six-week audit of manufacturing at Boeing, but he already knows that changes must be made in how the government oversees 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 had two challenges since Jan. 5, when an emergency door panel blew off a Boeing 737 Max 9 jetliner at 4,800 metres over Oregon.
“One, what is wrong with this airplane? But two, what’s going on with the production at Boeing?” Whitaker told a U.S. House transportation subcommittee. “There have been issues in the past. They don’t seem to be getting resolved, so we feel like we need to have a heightened level of oversight.”
Whitaker’s testimony before the subcommittee was wide-ranging. Leaders of the panel had spelled out questions they wanted answered, but few lawmakers stuck to the script — they asked about everything from the Max 9 incident to raising the retirement age for pilots to migrants being housed at airports.
Whitaker said the investigation involved placing “about two dozen” inspectors in Boeing’s 737 plant in Renton, Wash., and “maybe half a dozen” at a Wichita, Kan., plant where supplier Spirit AeroSystems makes the fuselages for 737s.
Whitaker said he expects the FAA will keep people in the Boeing and Spirit factories after the audit is done, but he said the numbers haven’t been determined.
NTSB releases preliminary report
The comments from Whitaker, who took over the FAA about three months ago, came hours before investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released a preliminary report on last month’s incident.
According to accident investigators, bolts that helped secure a panel to the frame of the Alaska Airlines plane were missing before the panel blew off last month.
The report included a photo from Boeing, which worked on the panel, which is called a door plug. In the photo, three of the four bolts that prevent the panel from moving upward are missing. The location of the fourth bolt is obscured.
Without the bolts, nothing prevented the panel from sliding upward and detaching from “stop pads” that secured it to the airframe.
The preliminary report said the door plug, installed by supplier Spirit AeroSystems, arrived at Boeing’s factory near Seattle with five damaged rivets around the plug. A Boeing crew replaced the damaged rivets, which required them to remove the four bolts to open the plug.
Investigators said they were still trying to determine who authorized the Boeing crew to open and re-install the door plug.
The NTSB did not declare a probable cause for the accident — that will come at the end of an investigation that could last a year or longer.
“Whatever final conclusions are reached, Boeing is accountable for what happened,” CEO David Calhoun said in a statement. “An event like this must not happen on an airplane that leaves our factory. We simply must do better for our customers and their passengers.”
The FAA has barred Boeing from speeding up production of 737s until the agency is satisfied about quality issues.
Spirit AeroSystems, which is Boeing’s key supplier on the Max, said in a statement that it was reviewing the NTSB preliminary report and was working with Boeing and regulators “on continuous improvement in our processes and meeting the highest standards of safety, quality and reliability.”
Boeing, FAA under scrutiny
Boeing and the FAA have been under renewed scrutiny since last month’s incident on the Alaska Airlines Max 9. Criticism of both the company and its regulator go back to deadly Max 8 crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia that killed 346 people.
Whitaker vowed that FAA will “take appropriate and necessary action” to keep the flying public safe.
This could involve closer monitoring of Boeing. For many years, the FAA has relied on employees of aircraft manufacturers to perform some safety-related work on planes being built by their companies.
Whitaker has said that the self-checking practice — in theory, overseen by FAA inspectors — should be reconsidered, but he stopped short of saying it should be scrapped.
“The current system is not working because it is not delivering safe aircraft,” Whitaker said. “Maybe we need to look at the incentives to make sure safety is getting the appropriate first rung of consideration that it deserves.”