Boeing shows feds its plan to fix aircraft safety 4 months after midair blowout

Boeing told federal regulators Thursday how it plans to fix the safety and quality problems that have plagued its aircraft-manufacturing work in recent years.

The Federal Aviation Administration required the company to produce a turnaround plan after one of its jetliners suffered a blowout of a fuselage panel during an Alaska Airlines flight in January.

“Today, we reviewed Boeing’s roadmap to set a new standard of safety and underscored that they must follow through on corrective actions and effectively transform their safety culture,” FAA Administrator Mike Whitaker said after he met with senior company leaders. “”On the FAA’s part, we will make sure they do and that their fixes are effective. This does not mark the end of our increased oversight of Boeing and its suppliers, but it sets a new standard of how Boeing does business,” he added

Nobody was hurt during the midair incident on relatively new Boeing 737 Max 9. Accident investigators determined that bolts that helped secure the panel to the frame of the plane were missing before the piece blew off. The mishap has further battered Boeing’s reputation and led to multiple civil and criminal investigations.

Accusations of safety shortcuts

Whistleblowers have accused the company of taking shortcuts that endanger passengers, a claim that Boeing disputes. A panel convened by the FAA found shortcomings in the aircraft maker’s safety culture.

In late February, Whitaker gave Boeing 90 days to come up with a plan to improve quality and ease the agency’s safety concerns. 

The FAA limited Boeing production of the 737 Max, its best-selling plane, after the close call involving the Alaska Airlines jetliner. Whitaker said the cap will remain in place until his agency is satisfied Boeing is making progress.

Over the last three months, the FAA conducted 30- and 60-day check-ins with Boeing officials, according to a statement from the agency. The purpose of the check-ins was to ensure Boeing had a clear understanding of regulators’ expectations and that it was fulfilling mid- and long-term actions they set forth by the FAA. These actions include:

  • Strengthening its Safety Management System, including employee safety reporting
  • Simplifying processes and procedures and clarifying work instructions
  • Enhanced supplier oversight
  • Enhanced employee training and communication
  • Increased internal audits of production system 

Potential criminal charges

Boeing’s recent problems could expose it to criminal prosecution related to the deadly crashes of two Max jetliners in 2018 and 2019. The Justice Department said two weeks ago that Boeing violated terms of a 2021 settlement that allowed it to avoid prosecution for fraud. The charge was based on the company allegedly deceiving regulators about a flight-control system that was implicated in the crashes.

Most of the recent problems have been related to the Max, however Boeing and key supplier Spirit AeroSystems have also struggled with manufacturing flaws on a larger plane, the 787 Dreamliner. Boeing has suffered setbacks on other programs including its Starliner space capsule, a military refueling tanker, and new Air Force One presidential jets.

Boeing officials have vowed to regain the trust of regulators and the flying public. Boeing has fallen behind rival Airbus, and production setbacks have hurt the company’s ability to generate cash.

The company says it is reducing “traveled work” — assembly tasks that are done out of their proper chronological order — and keeping closer tabs on Spirit AeroSystems.

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