Facing another Boeing crisis, the FAA is taking a tougher line

When a Boeing 737 Max 8 crashed off the coast of Indonesia in 2018, killing all 189 people on board, the Federal Aviation Administration allowed other Max planes to continue flying. Less than five months later, in early 2019, another Max 8 crashed in Ethiopia, killing another 157 people. Even then, it was days before the agency stopped the plane from flying.

In early January, when a door panel exploded from a Boeing 737 Max 9, the FAA reacted much more quickly. Within a day, he grounded dozens of similar Max 9 aircraft.

“It’s night and day compared to what happened in 2019,” said William J. McGee, senior fellow for aviation and travel at the American Economic Liberties Project, a research and advocacy group.

The agency did not stop with grounding. It said last month it would prevent Boeing from ramping up production of the 737 Max line until the company addresses quality control issues, a major blow to the planemaker’s ability to ramp up production as it tries to compete with its main rival, Airbus. The regulator also opened an investigation into Boeing’s compliance with safety standards and announced an audit of the Max 9 production line.

The FAA’s handling of the latest Boeing crisis will come under the spotlight Tuesday when the agency’s administrator, Mike Whitaker, testifies before a House subcommittee. The door panel accident has already prompted another wave of questions from Congress about how the state’s air safety regulator is performing its oversight role.

The agency has long relied on aircraft manufacturers to perform security work on behalf of the government, a practice that came under scrutiny after the Max 8 crash and is now drawing renewed attention. In the case of the Max 9 incident, one possibility is that Boeing employees improperly reinstalled a door panel, known as a door plug, after it was opened at the planemaker’s Renton, Washington, plant. If found guilty of a manufacturing defect, the FAA could face criticism over whether it adequately monitored Boeing’s manufacturing processes.

Regardless of how the nozzle problem arose, the FAA’s quick and aggressive response after the door plug exploded in midair was unusual for the agency. Considered the world’s most influential aviation regulator, it has been called a tombstone agency for years for failing to take action to address potential safety problems until people died. But in the past few weeks, Mr. Whitaker has made it clear that the FAA intends to take a tough line on Boeing, a manufacturing giant with a huge economic footprint.

“As Administrator Whitaker said, this cannot be a return to business as usual for Boeing,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a statement. “The FAA and the Department of Transportation are serious about reevaluating every aspect of oversight, with all options on the table to make sure these issues are fully addressed.”

The FAA declined to make Mr. Whitaker available for an interview, but in a statement last month called Boeing’s quality assurance problems “unacceptable.” The agency allowed the grounded Max 9 planes to return to the skies in late January after they were inspected.

Even before the harrowing incident with the Max 9 jet, the Biden administration was already under scrutiny for its management of the nation’s air transportation system. The Southwest Airlines meltdown around Christmas 2022 caused widespread travel disruption, and an FAA system outage the following month forced flights nationwide. In addition, a series of near misses at US airports has raised new security concerns.

Mr. Whitaker, who served as the No. 2 official at the FAA during the Obama administration, took the helm in October. He had been on the job just over two months when the door stopper incident occurred on Jan. 5 shortly after Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 took off from Portland, Ore. Although the plane landed safely and no one was seriously injured, the incident could have been far more serious had it occurred at cruising altitude.

The episode left the FAA in a familiar position: dealing with a crisis involving the 737 Max, Boeing’s best-selling jet.

Mark Lindquist, an attorney for the families of the Max 8 crash victims who is now representing passengers on the Alaska Airlines flight, said the FAA’s decision to immediately ground similar Max 9 planes made sense given the backlash the agency has faced after previous fatal crashes.

“It almost seemed like the FAA almost jumped at this opportunity to prove that they’re not just a tombstone agency and that they’re not in bed with Boeing and they’re going to prove that change by grounding this aircraft even though nobody died,” Mr. Lindquist said.

After the 2018 and 2019 crashes, which were caused in part by flight control software that pushed each plane’s nose down, the FAA came under fire for how it oversaw Boeing and the authority it gave the company to guarantee its own safety. airplanes.

A report by House Democrats concluded that the regulator had “failed in its oversight of Boeing and its certification” of the 737 Max, and Congress passed legislation aimed at improving the plane’s certification process and strengthening FAA oversight of planemakers.

While the Max 9 accident was a major setback for Boeing, calling into question its quality control practices, it also renewed scrutiny of how the FAA ensures that newly manufactured planes are safe to fly.

The jet that lost its door stopper just went into service in November. Before that, the FAA inspected the plane and found three deficiencies, which Boeing addressed before the regulator gave the plane its go-ahead, the agency said. The inspection was earlier The Washington Post reported.

The FAA did not provide details on the defects, and the agency would not say whether the inspection should have discovered problems with the door stopper if it had been improperly installed.

Members of Congress are scrutinizing FAA oversight of Boeing after the door stopper incident. Before the testimony of Mr. Whitaker on Tuesday, members of the House of Representatives sent him a letter asking him to be prepared to answer a series of questions about Boeing and the agency’s monitoring of aircraft production.

U her own letter last month, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington and chairwoman of the Commerce Committee, asked the FAA for records related to the agency’s oversight of Boeing and Spirit AeroSystems, the supplier that made the door stopper.

Ms. Cantwell wrote that early last year she asked the FAA to conduct a special audit that would examine Boeing’s manufacturing systems. The acting head of the agency at the time replied that such an audit was not necessary.

“In short, it appears that the FAA’s oversight processes have not been effective in ensuring that Boeing produces airplanes that are in a condition for safe operation, as required by law and FAA regulations,” Ms. Cantwell said in a statement last month.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the door stopper accident. Jennifer Homendy, the board’s chairwoman, said last month that the FAA’s actions would be examined as part of the investigation.

It remains to be seen whether the latest 737 Max crisis will result in permanent changes to the way the FAA oversees Boeing’s production of new planes.

One step the agency could take is to reclaim some of the security work currently delegated to Boeing employees. In a statement last month, Mr Whitaker said it was “time to review the delegation of authority and assess any associated security risks.” He added that the agency is considering using an independent third party to oversee Boeing’s inspections.

During a press briefing Monday, Jodi Baker, the FAA’s safety official, said the agency wants to revamp its oversight work to include what she described as more “oversight” of aircraft production in the field.

But the FAA does not have unlimited resources. Taking responsibility for safety tasks currently handled by Boeing employees could cost the agency, which is already struggling to convince Congress to give it the funding it needs.

“The implication is that regulators can wave a magic wand and solve problems,” said David M. Primo, a professor at the University of Rochester who has studied plane crashes and their effects on policy. “I’m not sure that’s realistic in this case.”

Santul Nerkar contributed reporting from New York.

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