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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Alaska 737 Max blowout raises new questions on FAA’s oversight of Boeing

Relatives and supporters of people who died on Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 — a Boeing 737 Max — gather in front of Boeing headquarters in March 2023 in Arlington, Va.    (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)
By Ian Duncan and Lori Aratani Washington Post

After a pair of crashes involving Boeing-made planes raised doubts about the Federal Aviation Administration’s oversight five years ago, the agency pledged to do better. It began completing checks of every 737 Max jet made by Boeing, using its own inspectors to sign off on each plane’s airworthiness.

On Oct. 25 of last year, an FAA inspector completed one of these checks on an Alaska Airlines jet, declaring it to be “in condition for safe operation,” according to an agency document summarizing his work. Two months later, that jet blew a hole midair shortly after takeoff from Portland International Airport.

The incident, which terrified passengers and forced an emergency landing, was a setback not only for Boeing but for the FAA, which has struggled to repair its reputation since the 2018 and 2019 crashes, which left 346 people dead. Though Boeing’s design was ultimately implicated in the crashes, lawmakers also faulted the FAA for moving too slowly to ground the planes and relying too heavily on Boeing workers to complete safety reviews.

The agency has earned praise from lawmakers and experts for its grounding of the Max 9 fleet and the harder line it appears to be taking against Boeing. Still, the agency is facing questions about its oversight of the plane maker’s production lines.

The FAA inspector who looked at the Alaska Max 9 in October initially marked three unsatisfactory items on a checklist, before affirming that technicians had corrected them, the agency document shows. Airworthiness certificate files for seven other Max 9’s bound for Alaska’s fleet last year show inspectors turned up a total of 50 last-minute issues with the planes. The agency said it would require a Freedom of Information Act request to disclose the details.

The agency declined to say whether the inspection ought to have raised concerns about the piece that fell off the Alaska jet, which is referred to as a door plug. The plug seals an optional emergency exit.

Ed Pierson, a former senior manager at Boeing’s 737 factory in Renton, Wash., said the FAA’s final inspection of the plane is typically limited, carried out after the plane has left the factory and been flown to a separate Boeing facility in Seattle. He said it would not be able to detect problems hidden on a fully assembled plane.

“Imagine you bought a new truck - you go and pick it up, you walk around, you lift the hood up, you kick the tires,” said Pierson, who now runs the Foundation for Aviation Safety. “It’s a cursory inspection.”

The FAA said that the deficiencies the inspector did turn up are a sign that inspections are a meaningful check on Boeing, and that agency staff play a “crucial role throughout the manufacturing process to ensure the airworthiness and safety of commercial aircraft.” The agency says it conducts nine other reviews at points throughout Boeing’s production process.

In a recent interview, FAA Administrator Michael Whitaker acknowledged that the agency plays a role in overseeing the manufacturing system but was focused on fixing any problems rather than assigning blame.

“We certainly will look at our own processes and oversight,” Whitaker said. The agency declined this week to say what form that effort might take.

Boeing referred questions about the airworthiness certificate of the plane involved in the door plug incident to the National Transportation Safety Board, which said its investigation would involve review of all of the jet’s documentation. The company referred questions about findings on other planes to the FAA. Boeing has said it will “cooperate fully and transparently with the FAA” as it continues to investigate quality issues.

The NTSB, which is an independent federal agency, is leading the investigation into the blowout on the Alaska plane, seeking to determine whether bolts designed to hold the door in place were properly installed. The board sent an investigator to Boeing’s 737 factory in Renton on Friday as part of an effort to build a detailed timeline of how the plane was put together.

While much of the initial scrutiny has been on Boeing and Spirit AeroSystems, a supplier that initially installed the door, NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy said the investigation would also examine the role of regulators.

“Part of the reason we were created as an independent agency is because we’re also conducting oversight of FAA as part of any investigation,” Homendy told reporters Jan. 17. “We’re going to look at their actions, as well.”

The FAA grounded 171 Max jets with the same plug door design Jan. 6, and ultimately kept the planes out of service for almost three weeks. The jets were cleared to fly again last week following inspections and maintenance necessary to ensure they conform to their original design.

Alaska Airlines estimated the groundings will cost it $150 million, while United Airlines is projecting a first-quarter loss as a result of groundings.

Even some of the FAA’s past critics say its response to the Alaska incident has been markedly different from how it handled the earlier crashes.

After the first crash off the coast of Indonesia in October 2018, the FAA began an investigation but did not ground the Max fleet. When an Ethiopian Airlines Max crashed in similar circumstances the following March, U.S. officials initially held off grounding the planes even as other aviation regulators around the world ordered them out of the skies. Then-Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao publicly questioned the need to ground the jets.

In the Alaska Airlines incident this year, the agency grounded the Max 9 planes and kept them from flying until more inspections could be completed.

Robert Clifford, an attorney for the families of the crash victims who is also representing some passengers on the Alaska flight, said the FAA’s patience with Boeing appears to have finally run out.

“The trust factor has been substantially diminished,” Clifford said.

Ray LaHood, who worked with Whitaker when he was transportation secretary in the Obama administration, said the agency is moving aggressively to move on from past criticisms that it was too deferential to Boeing.

“I think that culture has completely changed with the signals sent by Administrator Whitaker,” LaHood said.

Whitaker was confirmed as the agency’s leader in October, having previously served as deputy administrator during the Obama administration and holding executive roles at United.

Whitaker has taken a public role in addressing the agency’s response to the Alaska Airlines blowout this month, and Homendy said the relationship between the NTSB and the FAA is the best it has been in years. She said she has been on the phone with Whitaker sometimes as frequently as twice a day since the Alaska incident.

“I am happy that they took swift action, and serious action, around this incident and with the other planes,” she said in an interview Friday.

The two crises have posed different challenges for the FAA. Initial evidence suggests the Alaska Airlines incident - in which no one was seriously hurt - was linked to manufacturing flaws. The crashes several years ago, meanwhile, pointed to problems with the design of the Max. The FAA has focused much of its renewed oversight in recent years on Boeing’s design process.

The 2018 and 2019 crashes prompted a host of investigations and raised questions about how the agency had reviewed the design of the Max, an updated version of Boeing’s popular 737. Investigators found that regulators had failed to understand the risks posed by an automated system that pushed the noses of the planes down before they crashed, in part because Boeing employees had sought to minimize its significance. The FAA relies heavily on Boeing employees to carry out safety work on its behalf, but in some cases those workers have reported feeling pressured by the company to rush their work.

Lawmakers responded at the end of 2020 by tightening the FAA’s oversight of Boeing employees delegated to conduct safety work on the government’s behalf, and directing the agency to issue new rules requiring manufacturers developing new aircraft to disclose critical safety information. Three years later, much of that work remains in progress, with officials missing lawmakers’ deadlines in some cases.

The FAA also decided to take more control of the airworthiness certificate inspections. The certificates are the final sign-off that the plane is approved to be put into service, and must be kept with the aircraft. Before issuing the certificate, FAA inspectors review paperwork and visually inspect the plane inside and out.

The agency informed Boeing in late 2019 that the agency would continue carrying out the work itself, rather than delegating the process to the company, until it was confident that “Boeing has fully functional quality control and verification processes in place.”

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), the chair of the Commerce Committee, disclosed after the Alaska blowout that she had requested in early 2023 that the FAA audit Boeing’s production lines to determine whether the company’s processes were sufficient to ensure planes were being built correctly. She was rebuffed by the agency. The FAA’s then-acting administrator said in April that its existing oversight was 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,” Cantwell wrote to the agency this month.

The agency announced a fresh audit the following day. It also announced last week that it was deploying more inspectors and would use its authority over the airworthiness certificates to cap the number of Max jets it produces each month until it was confident quality control problems at the company’s factory had been solved.

The message to the company was intended to be clear. In a statement, Whitaker said, “This won’t be back to business as usual for Boeing.”