FAA was ‘too hands-off’ in watching troubled planemaker Boeing, agency head says


Federal Aviation Administration chief Mike Whitaker said his agency is partly responsible for the safety problems at Boeing, admitting that it had been “too hands off” in its oversight of the troubled aircraft manufacturer.

In testimony Thursday before the Senate Commerce Committee, Whitaker said that his agency now had far more inspectors on the ground at Boeing factories and the factory of its primary supplier, Spirit AeroSystems. He said it will continue to push Boeing to improve its safety culture in the wake of the January 5 incident in which a door plug blew off during an Alaska Airlines flight, leaving a gaping hole in the side of the Boeing 737 Max.

But he also said that the FAA was not blameless in that incident.

“Let me also acknowledge the FAA should have had much better visibility into what was happening at Boeing before January 5,” he said in his opening remarks to the committee.

“The FAA’s approach was too hands off, too focused on paperwork audits and not focused enough on inspections. We have changed that approach over the last several months. And those changes are permanent,” he said. “We have now moved to a more active, comprehensive oversight model - the audit plus inspection approach.”

Whitaker, who was confirmed to his job heading the nation’s primary aviation regulator in October, said he will be visiting Boeing’s South Carolina factory himself tomorrow, and its plant that makes the 737 Max in Renton, Washington in September.

Whitaker said that the FAA previously had 24 inspectors at Boeing and Spirit and that the number was in the low 30s now. Its target is 55 inspectors, although he did not give a date for when that would be in place. And he said that number could change over time.

“We can no longer afford to remain reactive,” he said.

A preliminary report by the National Transportation Safety Board has found that bolts necessary to keep the door plug on the Alaska Air plane in place were missing from the plane at the time it left the Boeing factory in Washington roughly two months before the flight. Under questions at Thursday’s hearing, Whitaker said the FAA did not have any inspectors in the factories at that time when the piece was put in.

Instead the FAA staff was focused on paperwork audits instead of actual inspections.

“We clearly did not have enough folks to see what was going on in that factory,” he said.

Safety experience… in the dairy industry

But finding the inspectors could be a problem. Sen. Maria Cantwell, the Washington Democrat who is chair of the committee, questioned the backgrounds of some of the safety inspectors.

“I’m definitely hearing ‘We don’t have enough aviation inspectors.’ And ‘We don’t even have enough qualified instructors at schools,’” she said. “One story I heard was that they said, ‘Yes, I have safety experience. But it’s in the dairy industry.’ We need an aviation inspector on the floor who has aviation experience, not just safety experience.”

Whitaker responded that while the agency is having to provide some training for new hires, it is finding the experienced inspectors it needs for Boeing.

“With respect to Boeing, we’re putting our most experienced and best people on this,” he said. “It’s certainly the most important issue we’re dealing with right now.”

But for years the FAA has relied on employees of Boeing and other manufacturers to inspect their own companies, then report to the FAA, under what is known as “delegation of authority.” That structure is still in place, even with more FAA employees now on the floor at Boeing factories.

That reliance on self-inspection and self-certification first started getting attention in 2019 after two fatal crashes of the 737 Max killed 346 people and led to a 20-month grounding of the plane. The fact that much of the certification of the Max, a relatively new aircraft, was done by Boeing employees, not FAA staff, raised questions in Congress and an outcry among families of some of the crash victims.

In January, after the Alaska Air flight, Whitaker joined those who suggested the process needed to be changed.

“It is time to re-examine the delegation of authority and assess any associated safety risks,” said Whitaker a week after the incident. “The grounding of the 737-9 and the multiple production-related issues identified in recent years require us to look at every option to reduce risk.”

In February the FAA gave Boeing 90 days to come up with a plan to improve safety. And in late May when the plan was submitted, the FAA announced it was leaving a limit on production levels in place until safety improves.

“There must be a fundamental shift in the company’s safety culture in order to holistically address its quality and safety challenges,” Whitaker said on Thursday. “This is about systemic change, and there’s a lot of work to be done.”

But he said there has been a shift in tone in discussions between the FAA and Boeing executives since the January incident.

“My focus has been on making it clear this is a very long-term journey. You don’t change the culture of an organization. We’ve seen an increasing recognition that this is a long journey ahead.”

Boeing also said it has made significant changes since January.

“We listened to our employees, engaged transparently with our regulator, welcomed the findings and recommendations from the FAA …. and invited scrutiny from customers and independent experts,” it said in a statement when asked for a comment on Thursday’s hearing. “We will work under the FAA’s oversight and uphold our responsibility to the flying public to continue delivering safe, high-quality airplanes.”

This story has been updated with additional reporting and context.

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