Boeing’s MAX headache mushrooms as attention turns to the FAA

Boeing’s MAX headache mushrooms as attention turns to the FAA

The near-catastrophic blowout of a door on an Alaska Airlines jet is resurrecting questions about the Federal Aviation Administration’s oversight of manufacturers like Boeing — including the agency’s decades-old practice of letting company employees certify their aircraft as safe to fly.

But that practice is unlikely to change anytime soon. For one thing, the FAA has been acting at the behest of Congress, which has over time repeatedly ordered the agency to expand its reliance on the private sector to carry out tasks such as plane certifications. And Congress has shown little appetite to do much different — especially considering what it would cost.

Reversing course — requiring the government to completely own the responsibility of overseeing the work of every plane manufacturer and subcontractor — would be a “huge” task for both Congress and the roughly 45,000-employee FAA, said retired Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), who chaired the House Transportation Committee from 2019 to last year.

“There’s no way we would get a budget that would be adequate to do all of that,” DeFazio said in an interview. “That would require thousands” of people.

For now, many questions remain unanswered about Friday’s accident, in which the paneled-over exit door of a Boeing 737 MAX 9 popped off mid-flight in the skies over Portland, Oregon. Some passengers were forced to cling to each other for safety as iPhones and other debris flew out through the hole.

The questions for investigators include exactly what part of the aviation system — from the door, the bolts, to the inspection process itself — was to blame for the door failure.

But details that have come to light so far have spurred lawmakers’ scrutiny of Boeing and its Kansas-based contractor, Spirit AeroSystems, which had assembled the door panels for delivery to various airlines. And that in turn has some in Congress asking what role the FAA had in ensuring the plane’s safety — just four years after flaws in Boeing’s earlier MAX 8 were implicated in two crashes that killed a total of 346 people in Indonesia and Ethiopia.

The MAX 9 that ruptured last week had entered service just a little over two months before the incident. Investigators have not said who inspected the door plug assembly, or if that part of the plane had yet been subject to a cycle of maintenance.

“The FAA has assured me the 737 MAX is safe — last week’s near catastrophe calls that determination into question,” Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) said in a statement Tuesday, calling for hearings in the accident. “Pilots have filed safety complaints on these aircraft, many of which had just rolled off the production line,” he added.

Vance said people deserve “a full explanation from Boeing and the FAA on what’s gone wrong and on the steps that are being taken to ensure another incident does not occur in the future.”

So far the relevant committees in the House and Senate have not scheduled any hearings.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) on Tuesday said federal investigators must also focus on whether “additional inspection and maintenance should have been done before the aircraft carried passengers anywhere.”

Boeing declined to comment for this article. But on Monday, after the FAA grounded the MAX 9 fleet pending inspections, the company said it supported the decision and that it is “committed to ensuring every Boeing airplane meets design specifications and the highest safety and quality standards.” And on Tuesday, CEO David Calhoun called a staff meeting where, according to CNN, he told employees that the company’s approach would be “number one acknowledging our mistake.” He went on to say the company will “approach it with 100 percent and complete transparency every step of the way.”

Spirit AeroSystems responded to questions by pointing to a previously issued statement that said its “primary focus” is “quality and product integrity” and that it is following standard protocols around communications when an investigation is ongoing.

In a statement, the FAA said it has “significantly enhanced its certification process and safety oversight” over the past two years. That includes, the agency said, boosting its oversight and “delegating less responsibility to manufacturers.”

The Alaska Airlines jet landed without further incident roughly 15 minutes after the blowout, leaving several passengers with minor injuries. But inspections of other 737 MAX 9 planes that had been grounded turned up loose panel door bolts — each its own potential disaster waiting to happen.

For now, regulators’ attention appears to be focusing on how the door panel in question was installed and who determined it was safe enough to fly. But more members of Congress are calling for an examination of how multiple planes were put into service with defects related to bolts within the paneled-over exit doors, and that will involve scrutiny over the manufacturers and the FAA as well, with memories of Boeing’s last 737 MAX disaster still fresh.

The fatal crashes of Boeing’s MAX 8 planes in 2018 and 2019 tarnished the FAA’s once-unblemished reputation for safety oversight, especially given the agency’s slowness to join other nations’ regulators in ordering the plane grounded. (This time, the FAA directed airlines to ground affected MAX models less than 24 hours after the Portland incident.) It also fueled criticism of the FAA’s congressionally directed system of delegating large portions of its airplane certification to the industry it regulates.

The delegation program remains in place. Indeed, since the current iteration of the program was officially established in 2006, Congress has mostly made moves to expand it. According to a 2013 Government Accountability Office report, by that year the FAA’s designees working in the private sector were performing some 90 percent of certification tasks, under the agency’s direction.

The FAA has said that the certification tasks it delegates include scrutinizing equipment such as engines, seats, cockpit displays and the aircraft themselves, including the engineering design, manufacturing, operations and maintenance. The designated company employees also help the agency certify aviation workers, including pilots and mechanics.

Those employees are “essentially the arm of the FAA,” Ray Conner, at the time president and CEO of Boeing’s commercial division, told the House Transportation Committee in a 2015 hearing. “Although they are paid by us, they are within our organization, they are approved individually by the FAA. They carry the FAA authority, in essence. And we take that very, very seriously.”

But lawmakers have accused the agency in past years of being too lax in its oversight of Boeing and some airlines. One 2020 Senate Commerce Committee probe alleged that the FAA had punished whistleblowers and even allowed Boeing to coach a pilot for a 737 MAX simulator test.

In 2020, Congress responded to the fatal MAX 8 disasters by enacting a law intended to correct some of the problems that multiple probes had identified. Among those changes are new whistleblower protections for employees at manufacturers; additional spending to help the FAA recruit and retain expert workers; new civil penalties for interfering in oversight work; and prohibitions on FAA employees receiving financial incentives for meeting manufacturer quotas or schedules.

“[Congress] did put in place the reforms to take care of the abuses of the process and captive regulator that we had in the Seattle office,” DeFazio said, referring to FAA officials in that field location.

But he heaped criticism on Boeing, saying he “had not seen changes at Boeing at all.”

Aviation safety consultant Jeff Guzzetti said it’s too early to tell whether the FAA’s program of delegating certification tasks to manufacturers is at fault in Friday’s incident. He said that signs so far are pointing to a quality control, rather than a certification, issue with Boeing.

The delegation authority “primarily involves oversight over the design process. And this particular recent Alaska Airlines event, again, has the earmarks of a factory floor manufacturing process,” he said. “And it has nothing to do with the types of deficiencies that were related to the two fatal 737 MAX accidents.”

Once planes are delivered to an airline, airlines themselves are responsible for safely maintaining those planes, under FAA supervision. FAA inspectors can and do conduct line checks selectively, and are also responsible for ensuring that the maintenance and inspections airlines often do themselves are up to snuff.

In the case of the Alaska Airlines flight, the plane had only been in service for a few months, and it is not clear whether the panel door would even have been due for maintenance yet.

The chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, Jennifer Homendy, said Monday that the plane in question had logged three pressurization warnings prior to the incident. Maintenance crews checked and cleared the warnings, but they still needed further investigation. Homendy said her agency, which is investigating the matter, is looking into whether the sensor illumination was related to Friday’s event.

Regardless of what the probes find, Guzzetti agreed that the delegation authority is “here to stay.”

“I think there’s no other way to do it,” said Guzzetti, who used to be a safety official at the FAA and at the National Transportation Safety Board, the independent agency reviewing Friday’s incident. “No one knows the airplane better than the manufacturer, and you need something set up where the manufacturer has to take a role in policing itself. And the FAA simply needs to monitor that process appropriately. But I just don’t see the day where [delegation] goes away,” he said.

Questions about potential manufacturing flaws are also putting Spirit AeroSystems, one of Boeing’s biggest contractors, in the spotlight — and not for the first time. Spirit AeroSystems has also been involved in other manufacturing problems, including fittings and holes that weren’t drilled correctly.

Spirit AeroSystems stocks tumbled on Monday, dropping almost 14 percent by the end of the day; they have recovered only modestly as of Tuesday. Boeing’s also were down but not as dramatically, at about 9 percent of what its value had been before Monday.

Both DeFazio and Guzzetti said boosting the FAA’s employee rolls could only help with oversight. But both the FAA and Boeing — like other industries — are having a tough time recruiting and retaining the best experts and engineers for the job.

DeFazio said he doesn’t believe every element needs to fall to the FAA to do, either. “Many of these things are routine, they’re not safety critical. There are hundreds of things that don’t rise to the level of needing FAA review,” he said.

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