FAA Head Vows Increase in Boeing Oversight

The agency is shifting to a more proactive approach in monitoring the company’s safety culture, FAA Administrator Mike Whitaker told lawmakers.

FAA Administrator Michael Whitaker testified on Boeing and aviation safety before the Senate Commerce Committee Thursday. [C-SPAN screenshot]

Boeing can expect the FAA to take a more hands-on approach when it comes to monitoring aircraft construction until the manufacturer can demonstrate it has established an adequate safety culture, FAA Administrator Mike Whitaker told the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee on Thursday.

"This is about systemic change, and there’s a lot of work to be done. It's the beginning of a long journey," Whitaker told the Senate panel during the hearing.

In recent years, Boeing has worked to rebuild its reputation following two 737 crashes in 2018 and 2019, respectively, that killed 346. Earlier this year, after a door plug dislodged from a Alaska Airlines 737 Max 9 midflight, leading to rapid decompression, an investigation found a lack of oversight during the building of the fuselage, Whitaker told the lawmakers.

Whitaker said the fact that workers forgot to install the four bolts meant to hold the door in place demonstrated that the FAA's approach to oversight was "too hands off, too focused on paperwork audits, and not focused enough on inspections."

According to Whitaker, the agency is shifting to a much more proactive approach. For starters, Boeing has been tasked to develop a much more safety-conscious culture. Among the changes the company has outlined include more training for its employees, less travel work, and  encouraging employees to speak up if they see potential safety issues.

Safety Culture

“Since January, Boeing has taken immediate containment actions to ensure the safety of our 737-9s," Boeing said in a statement to FLYING. "We also slowed production and took a disciplined look at every facet of our production operations. We listened to our employees, engaged transparently with our regulator, welcomed the findings and recommendations from the FAA's Aircraft Certification, Safety and Accountability Act (ACSAA) panel review, and invited scrutiny from customers and independent experts."

The aerospace giant used the information gathered to develop what it described as " a comprehensive plan to strengthen Boeing's safety management, quality assurance and safety culture."

"Boeing’s safety and quality plan addresses several improvement areas with actions that generally align to four focus areas: investing in workforce training, simplifying manufacturing plans and processes, eliminating defects, and elevating our safety and quality culture, along with measures to continuously monitor and manage the health of our production system," the company said.

Until the FAA is satisfied that Boeing has achieved this safety culture, the agency will continue with the enhanced oversight in the form of FAA inspectors in Boeing facilities and that of its component manufacturers, such as Spirit AeroSystems in Wichita, Kansas, where the fuselages of the 737s are made.

Whitaker said there are now more than 30 inspectors on-site at Boeing and Spirit, and the FAA is hiring more people, as it wants to have 55 inspectors in place. He also said the FAA will insist upon having a clear view of internal employee safety reports.

In recent months, reports have emerged that Boeing employees have been reluctant to report safety issues to management as the people who did so were sometimes retaliated against. 

Whitaker reminded the senators that air travel continues to be the "safest way of travel by a very, very large margin," and the FAA planned "to keep it that way."

WATCH: Michael Whitaker testifies before the Senate Commerce Committee

Meg Godlewski has been an aviation journalist for more than 24 years and a CFI for more than 20 years. If she is not flying or teaching aviation, she is writing about it. Meg is a founding member of the Pilot Proficiency Center at EAA AirVenture and excels at the application of simulation technology to flatten the learning curve. Follow Meg on Twitter @2Lewski.

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