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FAA’s ‘cozy’ relationship with Boeing at issue again after Alaska Air blowout

By Patrick Malone, The Seattle Times
Published: April 14, 2024, 6:00am

SEATTLE — Following the crashes of two 737 MAX jets that left more than 300 people dead and Boeing’s reputation for safety in tatters, Congress held probing hearings that unmasked limp and malleable federal oversight of how American planes are built.

While the flying public enjoyed the safest decade on record until the crashes five years ago, Boeing capitalized by persistently convincing the Federal Aviation Administration to narrow its scrutiny of the company’s factory floor, former employees of the company and its chief regulator told The Seattle Times. With each passing year, the FAA ceded a little more of its authority by deputizing manufacturers like Boeing to police the quality of their own work.

Congress held hearings in 2020 investigating the twinned tragedies in Ethiopia and Indonesia, crashes caused primarily by engineering mistakes at Boeing. The panel reached the conclusion that Boeing — not the FAA — was comfortably piloting its own regulatory fate, and demanded a course correction.

Internal communications between Boeing and the FAA, testimony from experts who’d seen Boeing’s manipulation of the FAA, and surveys of FAA employees uncovered during that 2020 inquiry showed technical design flaws and faulty assumptions about pilot responses, as well as management failures by both Boeing and the FAA, were instrumental in the chain of errors that led to the crashes.

Years have passed since his committee issued that report, but former U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio says the government still hasn’t solved its Boeing problem.

“You’ve got to turn this company around because it’s a mess,” the Oregon Democrat said recently. “The worst part of the equation is Boeing, but it will take political pushing because there’s so much inertia there.”

DeFazio’s hearings resulted in a new law — the Aircraft Certification, Safety, and Accountability Act — and FAA promises to strictly monitor the quality of Boeing aircraft. But critics of the FAA now say the slow action on those legislated changes and promises have meant alarmingly little.

“Since ACSAA became law, Boeing has supported implementation of the legislation, including providing full transparency for the FAA’s expert review panel in its evaluation of our safety culture and other safety measures,” Boeing said in a statement responding to questions from The Times. “Over the past several years, we’ve taken a number of significant actions to strengthen our safety practices and culture.

“We put safety and quality above all else, and continue to make significant changes to our culture, production and processes as we strive to improve.”

A near miss, a reputational hit

Four years on from the hearings, Boeing and the FAA face a new round of questions on Capitol Hill about the midflight blowout of a fuselage panel from an Alaska Airlines MAX 9 plane in January.

As Boeing and the FAA stand at another crisis-induced crossroads for the future of commercial air travel, safety engineers who worked at Boeing and FAA, and some families whose loved ones were killed in the MAX crashes, point to the latest mishap as evidence of scant progress.

They accuse Boeing of continuing to stiff-arm accountability measures ever since the hearings, and the government of easing its pressure on the manufacturer.

“Congress changed because it was forced to after our crashes by persistent families, persistent media coverage and the biggest investigation in the history” of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Michael Stumo, whose 24-year-old daughter, Samya Rose Stumo, died in the March 2019 Ethiopia Air crash, said in a phone interview from his home in Massachusetts.

“It was very surprising how quickly that ebbed. As soon as the news coverage went away, that ebbed.”

Some Boeing critics wonder whether the promised reform will ever materialize in a meaningful way.

Testimony and documents extracted from the FAA and Boeing for the 2020 hearings showed that employees of the company and its regulator flagged manufacturing irregularities only to be ignored. Congress acknowledged the phenomenon in passing the ACSAA of 2020, which among other provisions created a system for reporting interference with inspectors.

The FAA recently concluded an audit of Boeing’s production line that an FAA spokesperson said exceeded the agency’s standard inspection process. It found Boeing out of compliance with its manufacturing process, storage and handling of parts, and control over its products. Because it is part of the ongoing FAA investigation of Boeing, the FAA declined to release those findings.

Implementation of the 2020 law is ongoing, according to the FAA. Most provisions are in the rule-making phase, when the agency creates regulations to meet the congressional mandate. But according to a spokesperson, the FAA has fulfilled the law’s requirements for reining in delegated authority, including a provision to root out instances when inspectors are pressured over their findings or recommendations.

“One of the main objectives of [the 2020 legislation] was to force the FAA to exert greater control over the aircraft certification process and strengthen its oversight,” said U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.

“While there has been some effective tightening of regulations around testing and evaluating pilot reactions in emergency situations, Boeing’s quality system issues demonstrate FAA still has a ways to go.”

“This won’t be back to business as usual for Boeing,” FAA Administrator Mike Whitaker said in a written statement responding to questions from The Times. “They must commit to real and profound improvements. Making foundational change will require a sustained effort from Boeing’s leadership, and we are going to hold them accountable every step of the way.”

Safety engineers and families affected by the crashes have expressed little faith in Boeing, the FAA or Congress because of the manufacturing giant’s persistent focus on profits and the clout it wields in the halls of power.

“The FAA basically takes orders from Boeing. That’s been going on for the past 10, 15 years for sure,” said Joe Jacobsen, who worked for Boeing from 1984 to 1995 and then at the FAA for more than 15 years. “At the FAA, they talked about being a partnership [between the regulator and the company]. I would call it more of an abusive-spouse relationship.”

FAA’s “customer”

To find the origins of Boeing’s manufacturing troubles requires some history. Multiple former Boeing and FAA employees point to the McDonnell Douglas merger with Boeing in 1997 as the start of the current troubles.

Almost immediately, McDonnell Douglas’s profit-driven ethos began to push safety aside, according to Jacobsen. He said that trajectory snowballed in the years following the merger. That’s supported by the congressional report from the 2020 hearings; it showed that pressure exerted on manufacturing workers by Boeing managers led to mistakes and stoked reluctance to acknowledge or fix them.

“If you’re only looking at the next quarter’s financial statement, then everything gets pushed off,” Jacobsen said.

A change in the way the FAA monitored aircraft manufacturing only fueled the problem.

In 2005, the FAA, with the support of Congress, created a system for delegating oversight of the manufacturers to the manufacturers. While some measure of delegation had existed since the 1950s, the new system was designed to vastly expand the practice, and did.

The new approach replaced a system of inspection that relied on specific individuals designated by the FAA to be its eyes on the factory floor. Suddenly, it redirected FAA inspectors’ eyes away from a narrow focus on specific work to a far broader approach that assessed compliance of manufacturing systems.

“FAA managers used to call it ‘getting out of the critical path,’ “ recalled Mike Dostert, an engineer who worked at Boeing and later the FAA.

Even before the aircraft manufacturers approached the government about expanded self-policing of their work, the FAA was moving in that direction, Dostert said.

Boeing had decentralized its supply chain by selling off some of its component manufacturing operations, including Wichita, Kan.-based Spirit AeroSystems, where 737 fuselages are built before being shipped to Renton for assembly. The global diaspora of suppliers further obscured regulators’ view into manufacturing.

“That business model saved Boeing money up front, but it created a real problem,” Dostert said. “I would go to meetings as an FAA rep and ask the engineers, ‘What about this?’ They’d say, ‘I don’t know, we have to ask the supplier.’ “

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Suppliers didn’t always provide worthwhile answers.

The supply chain’s impact on certification and regulation captured the spotlight in 2013, when Congress held hearings over a lithium battery fire in a Boeing 787 Dreamliner in Boston. The battery was built in Japan. The system it connected to was from France. And the FAA never visited either manufacturer.

Instead, it took the word of Boeing and Boeing’s suppliers that everything would be fine. When it wasn’t, the FAA’s head of national aircraft certification at the time, Dorenda Baker, said, “it would virtually be impossible to keep up with industry” absent extensive delegation of oversight to the manufacturer.

In 2011 and again in 2015 the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, pointed out myriad flaws in the way the FAA delegated oversight authority to manufacturers.

The 2015 GAO report that took aim at delegated authority said the FAA focused on meeting the minimum regulatory requirements, resulting in findings that seldom related to high-risk issues — those that could directly impact the potential loss of critical systems or other safety concerns. Instead, FAA regulators were chasing paperwork errors, like companies using their marketing names instead of their official names on their submissions.

Despite the GAO’s criticism, the FAA moved in 2016 to expand its reliance on delegated authority to manufacturers — resulting in a more than 50% reduction in the direct involvement of FAA certification staff in reviews. Correspondence between union leaders and FAA managers showed Congress and the regulated industries wanted it that way.

The warnings aside, FAA continued to expand its reliance on delegated oversight. But after a Boeing MAX 8 crashed into the Java Sea in October 2018 killing all 189 onboard, and another MAX 8 cost 157 people their lives when it crashed in Ethiopia, congressional hearings drew together a massive amount of evidence that delegation to the manufacturers had dramatically eroded safety.

From the moment Congress began investigating the relationship between Boeing and its regulator, the chumminess was evident, according to DeFazio.

“When we started the investigation, FAA was referring to Boeing as ‘a customer,’ I said, ‘They’re not your customer. You’re regulating in the interest of public safety,’” DeFazio said. “But they had evolved into this cozy relationship. They kept expanding the [delegation of authority] — less and less FAA regulation.”

Surveys of FAA employees and managers in early 2020 unearthed by the hearings found “external pressure from industry is strong and is impacting safety culture.” Technical experts at the FAA said their safety recommendations were commonly ignored. Among the survey respondents, 43% did not believe the FAA appropriately delegated authority to people outside the agency.

When Boeing couldn’t fix a problem on the factory floor, the company flexed its muscle on the floor of Congress or the executive offices of the FAA to seek grace instead, the House committee report showed.

Employees and managers at the FAA described “pressure to find win-win solutions that benefit industry. Many reported that industry would escalate issues to senior [FAA] leadership and/or Congress if FAA employees were perceived as ‘getting in their way,’ which leads directly to decisions that are friendlier to industry.”

“Somehow, the managers of the failed company that merged with Boeing became the top dogs at Boeing,” DeFazio said. “Now the corruption of Boeing by the McDonnell Douglas alums has been almost complete, and it’s going to take a lot to reverse it.”

The Boeing lobby

Boeing emerged from its beating in Congress saddled with new laws aimed at strengthening safety oversight and a deferred-prosecution agreement with the Justice Department that would stave off criminal penalties for the international crashes if the company showed improvement.

Dostert, Stumo and others worry that attention to the oversight reforms has faded as time moved on from the international crashes. They said the FAA’s slow implementation of reforms and recent actions in Congress indicate that momentum for change has backslid.

Dostert points to an outdated cockpit display on MAX models as a telling example of Boeing’s influence and the government’s waning interest. Even after the stinging hearings of 2020, Boeing resisted a standing requirement to modernize cockpit displays.

“That’s a prime example of the effectiveness of the Boeing lobby, and the way the FAA will not regulate,” Dostert said.

After decreasing between 2017 and 2018, the air transport industry that includes Boeing has increased its spending on lobbying each year since the international crashes of Boeing planes. Lobbying by that industry sector peaked at $137 million in 2023, according to the nonpartisan, nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics.

From 2019 through the present, Boeing has spent more to influence decisions in Congress and federal agencies than any other player in that industry, committing more than $67 million to lobbying over the past five years.

Over the past decade, Boeing’s corporate political action committee has pumped more than $25 million into federal election campaigns over the past decade, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Most of it went to Republican campaigns.

Dostert and Jacobsen are on the advisory board of The Foundation for Aviation Safety, a nonprofit founded after the MAX crashes. It’s populated with concerned technical experts who hope to provide a counterweight to the aircraft manufacturing industry — Boeing in particular. The group minds and reports publicly disclosed manufacturing problems and flight anomalies, then issues recommendations for improving safety.

DeFazio said he saw Boeing’s clout firsthand in Congress. “In part it’s a ‘too-big-to-fail’ mentality, that Boeing is so important to the nation. They were our leading export item in terms of value … I want them to succeed, but to succeed by selling a safe, quality product.”

Reform, all over again

Within a week of the January blowout, FAA Administrator Whitaker announced sweeping changes to the agency’s oversight of Boeing.

“It’s time to reexamine the delegation authority and assess any associated safety risks,” Whitaker said in a distributed statement.

On paper, Whitaker looks like other FAA administrators over the past 20 years who pass through the revolving door between the FAA and the C-suites of aerospace firms. But across the board, the Boeing critics interviewed by The Times expressed a measure of confidence in Whitaker.

“He has his head on straight,” Stumo said.

“He is taking a very strong position to reset the FAA as a regulator, and not a buddy of Boeing,” DeFazio said.

“Whitaker seems to be saying the right things. It kind of made it easier to do that when the door blew off,” Jacobsen said.

“I’m encouraged that Administrator Whitaker appears to be taking the issues and his responsibilities seriously and will force the necessary improvements,” Sen. Cantwell said. “We should all remember that FAA’s job must be compliance, not efficiencies.”

Despite some cautious optimism about Whitaker, Stumo and the rest remain skeptical.

“The FAA,” Stumo said, “their story remains to be written.”

Last month, The Foundation for Aviation Safety provided virtual briefings to top leaders at the U.S. Department of Transportation and the FAA. In a blunt PowerPoint presentation, the foundation spotlighted Boeing’s delayed responses to corrective actions and data connecting 20 years’ worth of engineering failures to delegated oversight.

“The FAA has enabled Boeing to cut corners and is continuing to enable this behavior,” the report said.

The presenters are still waiting for a response.

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