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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Boeing 737 Max official is out after midair mishap

The Alaska Airlines plane in Portland, Ore., on Jan. 7 after the door plug in its fuselage blew out midair.  (NATIONAL TRANSPORTATION SAFETY BOARD)
By Sydney Ember and Niraj Chokshi New York Times

Boeing said Wednesday that it was shaking up the leadership in its commercial airplanes unit after a harrowing episode last month during which a piece fell off a 737 Max 9 jet in flight.

Ed Clark, the head of Boeing’s 737 Max program, which includes the Max 9, is leaving immediately, Stan Deal, the CEO of the commercial airplanes unit, said in a memo to employees. Boeing, which also announced other leadership changes, has been under pressure from regulators, airlines and members of Congress to prove that it is committed to making safe planes.

Boeing said in recent weeks that it was overhauling its quality control process, including increased inspections at the factory in Renton, Washington, where Clark oversaw Max production. The leadership changes are the company’s most prominent attempt to show it is holding itself accountable for the Jan. 5 episode that left a fuselage hole in an Alaska Airlines plane.

Clark took over the Max program in 2021 as the company was accelerating production of the plane, which had been banned from flight worldwide for 20 months after two fatal crashes killed 346 people. Those crashes cost Boeing billions of dollars, deeply damaged its image and attracted far more scrutiny of the company from regulators worldwide.

Deal said Wednesday that Katie Ringgold, previously in charge of 737 deliveries, would take over the Max program, and that another executive, Elizabeth Lund, would take on a new role overseeing quality across all of Boeing’s commercial airplanes. Mike Fleming, who oversaw the Max’s return to service after the crashes, will succeed Lund in heading the unit’s plane programs. Don Ruhmann will take over Fleming’s role as vice president of development programs.

The leadership changes will contribute to Boeing’s “enhanced focus on ensuring that every airplane we deliver meets or exceeds all quality and safety requirements,” Deal said in the memo. “Our customers demand, and deserve, nothing less.”

Richard Aboulafia, a managing director at the aerospace consulting firm AeroDynamic Advisory, commended Boeing for promoting from within rather than bringing in outsiders to shake up leadership. But, he cautioned, such changes have limits.

“I would also recommend regarding their workforce and supply chain companies as mere commodities – in other words, making sure they are adequately resourced,” he said. “Organizational changes can only go so far in addressing the fundamental problem.”

The Alaska Airlines episode occurred shortly after takeoff from Portland International Airport in Oregon. At about 16,000 feet, a panel known as a door plug blew off the Max 9 jet, terrifying passengers and forcing the pilots to return to Portland for an emergency landing. The plug is a barrier used to cover a gap in the plane’s body where an extra exit door could optionally be installed. The mishap could have been far more catastrophic had the plane reached cruising altitude.

Almost immediately, the Federal Aviation Administration grounded all Max 9 jets in the United States. The agency later cleared the jets to fly after inspections were conducted, but said it would limit Boeing’s plans to increase production of the Max until the agency was satisfied that Boeing could show it had fixed its quality issues.

The National Transportation Safety Board this month released a preliminary report on the episode that said two pairs of bolts partly responsible for holding the plug in place had been removed at Boeing’s Renton factory and appeared never to have been replaced. It remains unclear how such a mistake could have occurred, especially on a manufacturing floor where every aspect of the process is supposed to be documented and inspected.

The incident and its fallout plunged Boeing into a crisis over safety just five years after the Max crashes, which were caused in part by software added to the jets to automatically push the plane’s nose down in certain situations.

Although the door plug episode did not result in serious injuries, it raised new questions about the quality of Boeing’s planes. In a rare display of frustration, airline CEOs publicly criticized Boeing in television appearances and during earnings calls and urgently called for the company to fix its issues.

After the Max crashes in 2018 and 2019, Boeing halted and then slowly resumed production of the Max planes, which were in service again in late 2020. The next year, Clark, a veteran engineer and mechanic, was named head of the Max program.

The coronavirus pandemic briefly severely diminished demand for airline travel and passenger planes, leaving Boeing scrambling to cut costs and retrench. Travel has since rebounded strongly, with Boeing and its European rival, Airbus, struggling to meet demand for planes.

Boeing’s Max line has also suffered from supply chain challenges and quality control problems at its suppliers. Two weeks ago, Boeing said a supplier – later identified as Spirit AeroSystems, which makes the 737 Max bodies – had found incorrectly drilled holes on the bodies of Max planes. The company said the error was not an immediate safety risk but that it would probably delay delivery of about 50 planes for adjustments.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.