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The FAA is tightening oversight of Boeing and will audit production of the 737 Max 9

The door plug area of an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 Max 9 aircraft, seen with the paneling removed, awaits inspection Wednesday at the airline's facilities at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in SeaTac, Wash.
Lindsey Wasson
The door plug area of an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 Max 9 aircraft, seen with the paneling removed, awaits inspection Wednesday at the airline's facilities at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in SeaTac, Wash.

Updated January 12, 2024 at 3:11 PM ET

The Federal Aviation Administration says it will increase its oversight of Boeing and its suppliers, and will re-examine the longstanding practice of allowing company employees to perform some safety analysis of its planes.

Regulators at the FAA say they will begin auditing the production of Boeing's 737 Max 9 planes after a panel blew off an Alaska Airline flight in midair last week. The agency also said it would assess the safety risks of having delegated some of its oversight authority to Boeing.

"It is time to re-examine the delegation of authority and assess any associated safety risks," FAA Administrator Mike Whitaker said in a statement Friday. "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."

No one was killed during the Alaska Airlines incident, but investigators say it could have been much worse if the plane, which was at 16,000 feet when the door plug blew out, had violently depressurized at a higher altitude.

The heightened scrutiny of Boeing comes as some lawmakers and safety advocates have raised questions about the company's quality control — and about the FAA's ability to oversee its design and manufacturing operations.

Reassessing authority is "long overdue"

The FAA has long outsourced some of its oversight to authorized Boeing employees, despite criticism from safety advocates. Defenders of the practice say the FAA has limited resources and so it has to depend on the expertise of Boeing and other manufacturers for self-certification.

Regulators now say they will consider whether to move quality oversight and inspections to an independent third party.

"It's something that's long overdue," said David Soucie, a former FAA safety inspector and the author of the book Why Planes Crash.

Soucie criticized the agency for not moving quickly enough to ground the Boeing 737 Max 8 after two crashes in 2018 and 2019 that left 346 people dead. But he says FAA Administrator Whitaker, who started the job just a few months ago, appears to be taking a more aggressive approach to this incident.

"This is a very smart move by the FAA" to consider moving safety oversight to an independent third party, he said in an interview with NPR. "The drive for profitability may just be overriding this ability to have an independent delegation within the organization."

Soucie cautioned, however, that following through on a shift to third-party oversight would be a heavy lift for the FAA and the aviation industry it regulates.

"They're taking their time doing it because the impact of what they're discussing doing here is huge," Soucie said. "It's enormous. It will affect every manufacturer in the United States that manufactures anything to do with aircraft."

Boeing's suppliers also under scrutiny

The FAA's actions come after public criticism from some key lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

"It appears that FAA's oversight processes have not been effective in ensuring that Boeing produces airplanes that are in condition for safe operation, as required by law and by FAA regulations," Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., wrote in a letter to the FAA administrator on Thursday.

Cantwell, the chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, asked the FAA to provide records from the agency's oversight of Boeing and Spirit AeroSystems, a Kansas-based Boeing contractor that makes the fuselage and the door plug of the 737 Max aircraft involved in the Alaska Airlines incident.

On Friday, Cantwell said she welcomed the FAA's announcement that it would open a new audit of Boeing's production line.

"The public deserves a comprehensive evaluation of Boeing and Spirit AeroSystems to strengthen production quality and aviation safety," Cantwell said in a statement.

Spirit is being sued by shareholders who accuse its leaders of mismanaging the company and misrepresenting details about its operations. As concern over manufacturing defects grew last fall, Spirit replaced its CEO with former Boeing executive Pat Shanahan. Boeing and Spirit also announced an agreement to try to boost both production and quality.

Hundreds of planes remain grounded

Alaska and United airlines have canceled hundreds of flights a day as their fleets of Boeing 737 Max 9 aircraft remain grounded. Both airlines say they're still awaiting final approval of guidelines from the FAA so that they can officially inspect the grounded planes.

The agency has not said when those planes will be certified to fly again.

"The safety of the flying public, not speed, will determine the timeline for returning the Boeing 737-9 MAX to service," the FAA said in its statement Friday.

Boeing did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the increased oversight from the FAA.

The agency's latest actions come a day after the FAA announced a formal investigation of Boeing's manufacturing processes. The company has pledged to cooperate with the investigation.

"We welcome the FAA's announcement and will cooperate fully and transparently with our regulator," Boeing said in a statement. "We support all actions that strengthen quality and safety and we are taking actions across our production system."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.