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Boeing is under fire after Alaska Airlines MAX 9 blowout. So is the FAA

By Lauren Rosenblatt, The Seattle Times
Published: January 12, 2024, 7:57am
3 Photos
This image taken Sunday, Jan. 7, 2024, and released by the National Transportation Safety Board, shows a section of Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 that is missing panel on a Boeing 737-9 MAX in Portland, Ore. Federal officials are investigating Boeing&rsquo;s oversight of production of a panel that blew off a jetliner in midflight last week.
This image taken Sunday, Jan. 7, 2024, and released by the National Transportation Safety Board, shows a section of Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 that is missing panel on a Boeing 737-9 MAX in Portland, Ore. Federal officials are investigating Boeing’s oversight of production of a panel that blew off a jetliner in midflight last week. (NTSB via AP) Photo Gallery

SEATTLE — Nearly a week after a panel blew off an Alaska Airlines 737 MAX 9 aircraft midflight, lawmakers and federal regulators are starting to look to the Boeing plane’s troubled history to understand what happened — and what didn’t.

On Thursday, fingers started pointing.

The Federal Aviation Administration announced Thursday morning it was opening an investigation into Boeing’s role in last Friday’s fuselage blowout. The investigation would determine if Boeing properly complied with all regulations meant to ensure its planes were safe and built correctly.

Later that day, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., sent a letter to the FAA demanding more information about the agency’s oversight of Boeing’s practices, oversight that came under intense congressional scrutiny five years ago after 346 people were killed in two MAX crashes.

On Friday, the FAA announced that it would intensify its oversight and audit Boeing’s 737 MAX 9 production line, as well as the company’s parts suppliers.

Cantwell had asked to see the last 24 months of notices of FAA quality systems audits related to Boeing and one of its suppliers, Spirit AeroSystems. Spirit, based in Wichita, Kan., builds the entirety of the fuselage for the 737 MAX 9, before sending it to Boeing’s Renton plant by train.

“Recent accidents and incidents … call into question Boeing’s quality control,” Cantwell wrote in the letter to the FAA Thursday. But, she continued, “it appears that the FAA’s oversight processes have not been effective” in ensuring Boeing’s planes are safe.

Last Friday, a refrigerator-size door plug positioned to fill a fuselage hole where an emergency exit can be installed blew out as Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 climbed to 16,000 feet after departing Portland, Ore. The Alaska flight was operating a 737 MAX 9, the less popular of two MAX models currently carrying passengers.

The plane returned safely to Portland International Airport, where some passengers were treated for nonlife-threatening injuries.

The FAA grounded that model of the MAX shortly after the incident. The planes will remain grounded until they are inspected, following a set of instructions from Boeing that must be approved by the FAA.

On Thursday, as accusations began to fly, Boeing said it would comply with investigations from the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board, which is leading the inspection into the fuselage blowout.

The NTSB has not held a press briefing on the incident since Monday. At that news conference, chair Jennifer Homendy indicated it was unlikely the incident was caused by negligence on the part of Alaska Airlines.

That left the pressure directed at Boeing and Spirit.

FAA investigation announced

In a letter sent Wednesday to Boeing Vice President Carole Murray, the FAA said it had been “notified of additional discrepancies” on other Boeing 737 MAX 9 aircraft.

The “circumstances indicate that Boeing may have failed to ensure its completed products” were “in a condition for safe operation,” John Piccola, from the FAA, wrote in the letter.

Boeing is responsible for certifying that each completed plane conforms to the approved design and is safe to operate, according to the FAA. It also must inspect and test products and ensure that “post-delivery activities” are completed following contract and regulatory guidelines.

Since the Friday incident, it has become clear that the circumstances leading the door plug to blow off may not have been a one-off mishap. As Alaska and United Airlines began inspecting the rest of their 737 MAX 9 fleet, both separately announced that they had found loose hardware.

Alaska and United are the only U.S.-based airlines to use the MAX 9 model. Both airlines fly MAX 9s with the door plug installed; an emergency exit is installed there only on MAX 9s set up to accommodate extra seats in the cabin.

The NTSB’s investigation is focused on the door plug used to block that space — and four bolts meant to ensure that the plug stays in place.

The NTSB’s first conclusion, after inspection of the aircraft and the 63-pound door plug, is that four bolts that should have prevented the plug from moving outward must have been either missing, misinstalled or broken.

In the days since the incident, passengers and government agencies have been left wondering how such a thing could have happened.

On Thursday, the FAA said it never should have.

“It cannot happen again,” the agency said in a statement.

“Boeing’s manufacturing practices need to comply with the high safety standards they’re legally accountable to meet,” the FAA said. “The safety of the flying public, not speed, will determine the timeline for returning the Boeing 737-9 MAX to service.”

In response to the FAA’s investigation, Boeing spokespeople pointed to statements from CEO Dave Calhoun at an all-employee meeting earlier this week. There, Calhoun told workers the company would approach the situation with “100% complete transparency every step of the way.”

The company must now make sure customers know “every airplane that Boeing has its name on that’s in the sky is in fact safe,” Calhoun told employees.

The FAA asked Boeing to submit any evidence or statements related to the investigation within 10 days.

Boeing’s response, the FAA wrote in its letter, should include the “root cause” of the incident, details about service impacts and affected products, and information on any immediate and long-term action taken to correct the problem.

‘Terrifying incident’

Hours after the FAA announced it would investigate Boeing for its role in the blowout that left a refrigerator-sized hole in an Alaska Airlines 737 MAX 9, Sen. Cantwell pointed some of the blame back at FAA regulators.

In a Thursday letter to the FAA, she referred to a January 2023 letter where she requested the FAA conduct a special technical audit of 11 areas related to Boeing’s production systems. The FAA responded to Cantwell that April and declined to take action, according to Cantwell’s most recent note.

In the FAA’s response, former acting administrator Billy Nolen told Cantwell the audit was not needed because the agency had already implemented tools to complete these types of reviews, Cantwell continued.

On Thursday, Cantwell asked the FAA to provide a full account of its oversight of manufacturer’s compliance and quality control standards to determine if its processes are effective.

“The safety of the flying public is our top priority,” Cantwell said in a statement. “We must know what caused the terrifying incident on an Alaska Airlines flight last week and whether manufacturers and FAA oversight failed to meet safety regulations.”

In addition to the notification letters, Cantwell asked the FAA to provide copies of any reports related to audits of Boeing and Spirit, any letters of investigation following the assessments and other documents provided to both companies.

The senator also asked the FAA to identify “what, if any, improvements in oversight” the agency intends to take to ensure Spirit’s processes meet all regulatory requirements.

Cantwell alleged the FAA’s current processes appear to offer a loophole for manufacturers to avoid audit accountability. She pointed to one stipulation that required the FAA to give manufacturers 50 days advance notice before a quality system audit.

“In effect, manufacturers must only get their house in order once an audit is announced,” Cantwell said.

The FAA said Thursday it would respond directly to the senator. The agency did not respond to questions about the allegations contained in the letter.

Cantwell asked the FAA to respond to her letter by Jan. 25.

Boeing, and specifically its MAX aircraft, have been scrutinized in recent years as it faced manufacturing flaws, concerns about overheating that led the FAA to tell pilots to limit the use of an anti-ice system and a possible loose bolt in the rudder system. Both MAX models currently in service, the MAX 8 and MAX 9, were grounded globally in 2019 following the two deadly MAX 8 crashes.

In 2021, the FAA fined Boeing $17 million and ordered the manufacturer to undertake multiple corrective actions to improve quality control in building the MAX.

Cantwell asked the FAA if it had verified that Boeing’s inspection program, which Boeing revamped in 2019, complies with all regulatory requirements.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., also sent a letter to the FAA earlier this week demanding an “answer on how this incident occurred” and more information on what the FAA is “doing to ensure our skies are safe.”

“This disturbing event is another black mark for Boeing’s 737 MAX aircraft fleet and, troublingly, appears to be part of a wider pattern,” Blumenthal wrote.

‘A full accounting’

In the week since the fuselage blowout, Washington state lawmakers have voiced support for the investigation.

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Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., was in immediate contact with Alaska Airlines and Boeing following the blowout and remains in touch with both companies, according to a staff member of Smith’s congressional office. Smith would like the incident to be thoroughly investigated, the staff member said.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said Thursday she was glad the FAA “is conducting an investigation to get to the bottom of this.”

“The public deserves a full accounting of why this happened, how Boeing and the FAA will prevent this from happening in the future and the peace of mind that they can fly safely,” Murray said in a statement.

She pointed to the incident as a reason to provide more funding to the FAA, something that House Republicans have tried to whittle down.

Murray’s funding bill that passed the Senate in November included a $1.2 billion increase for the agency to hire more air traffic controllers, reduce flight delays and create more positions for the Office of Aviation Safety that is responsible for aircraft certification. The final funding bill is still being negotiated.

Speaking before the disclosure of Cantwell’s letter, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said Wednesday that he has full confidence in the FAA’s leadership, according to Politico.

“I have confidence in any aircraft cleared by the FAA,” Buttigieg said at a transportation event in Washington, D.C. “The FAA’s doing a great job.”