With the warning that “the January 5 Boeing 737 9 Max incident must never happen again,” the FAA has unveiled a list of actions Boeing must undertake if it wants to see the 737 Max 9 return to the skies.
According to a statement from the FAA, the agency has “approved a thorough inspection and maintenance process that must be performed” on all 171 grounded Boeing 737 Max 9 aircraft. The statement notes that “upon successful completion, the aircraft will be eligible to return to service.”
Within hours of Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 losing a door plug shortly after an early evening takeoff from Portland International Airport (KPDX) in Oregon, the airline grounded its 737 Max 9 fleet as a precaution. The model makes up approximately 20 percent of Alaska’s fleet.
FAA Administer Mike Whitaker noted that the agency grounded the 737 Max 9 on a national scale within hours of the event and “made clear this aircraft would not go back into service until it was safe.”
Whitaker continued: “The exhaustive, enhanced review our team completed after several weeks of information gathering gives me and the FAA confidence to proceed to the inspection and maintenance phase. However, let me be clear: This won’t be back to business as usual for Boeing. We will not agree to any request from Boeing for an expansion in production or approve additional production lines for the 737 Max until we are satisfied that the quality control issues uncovered during this process are resolved.”
In addition, the FAA has “ramped up oversight of Boeing and its suppliers”.
New Instructions from the FAA
Per the statement from the FAA, the agency reviewed data compiled from 40 inspections of grounded aircraft and used it to create a detailed set of inspection and maintenance instructions. It also convened a Corrective Action Review Board (CARB) “made up of safety experts [that] scrutinized and approved the inspection and maintenance process.”
The agency stressed that “following the completion of the enhanced maintenance and inspection process on each aircraft, the door plugs on the 737 Max 9 will be in compliance with the original design which is safe to operate….This aircraft will not operate until the process is complete and compliance with the original design is confirmed.”
Per the FAA, the enhanced maintenance process requires:
Inspection of specific bolts, guide tracks and fittings
Detailed visual inspections of left and right mid-cabin exit door plugs and dozens of associated components
Correcting any damage or abnormal conditions
FAA Holding Boeing Accountable
The FAA is also increasing oversight of Boeing’s production lines.
“The quality assurance issues we have seen are unacceptable,” Whitaker said. “That is why we will have more boots on the ground closely scrutinizing and monitoring production and manufacturing activities.”
Increased oversight activities include:
Capping expanded production of new Boeing 737 Max aircraft to ensure accountability and full compliance with required quality control procedures
Launching an investigation scrutinizing Boeing’s compliance with manufacturing requirements. The FAA will use the full extent of its enforcement authority to ensure the company is held accountable for any non-compliance.
Aggressively expanding oversight of new aircraft with increased floor presence at all Boeing facilities
Closely monitoring data to identify risk
Launching an analysis of potential safety-focused reforms around quality control and delegation
The agency will continue to work closely with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) as it continues the investigation into Alaska Airlines Flight 1282. One of the key questions to be answered is if the bolts that are designed to hold the door plug in place were installed correctly, if at all, at the time of the accident.
FAA Waiting for Boeing Safety Review
In early 2023, the agency convened 24 experts to review Boeing’s safety management processes with an eye toward how they affect the aircraft manufacturing giant’s safety culture.
Per the FAA statement, “the review panel included representatives from NASA, the FAA, labor unions, independent engineering experts, air carriers, manufacturers with delegated authority, legal experts and others.”
The panel reviewed thousands of documents and interviewed more than 250 Boeing employees, managers, and executives, Boeing supplier employees, and FAA employees, and visited several Boeing sites as well as Spirit AeroSystems’ facility in Wichita, Kansas.
The report is expected to be released in a few weeks. The FAA will be using the information to determine if additional action is required.
In response to the FAA, Boeing released a statement: “We will continue to cooperate fully and transparently with the FAA and follow their direction as we take action to strengthen safety and quality at Boeing. We will also work closely with our airline customers as they complete the required inspection procedures to safely return their 737-9 airplanes to service.”
READ MORE: Boeing to Shut Down Facility for a Day
In addition, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) announced she will conduct congressional hearings to investigate the alleged “safety lapses” that may have led to the loss of the door plug from the ill-fated flight.
“[The public and workers deserve] a culture of leadership at Boeing that puts safety ahead of profits,” Cantwell said.
According to aviation data provider Cirium.com, there are approximately 215 Max 9 aircraft in use around the world. Of those, 79 belong to United Airlines and 65 to Alaska Airlines. Both airlines experienced flight cancellations and delays following the FAA’s grounding of the jets.
During the grounding the airlines complied with an FAA mandate to inspect their fleets of Max 9s, and the data collected from these inspections has been evaluated by the agency and used to develop its orders for final inspection of the aircraft, which is required to return them to airworthy status.
In a statement, Alaska Airlines noted “each of our aircraft will only return to service once the rigorous inspections are completed and each aircraft is deemed airworthy, according to the FAA requirements. We have 65 737-9 Max in our fleet. The inspections are expected to take up to 12 hours for each plane.”
Alaska Airlines predicts the first of the Max 9s will resume flying on Friday, “with more planes added every day as inspections are completed and each aircraft is deemed airworthy.”
Toby Enqvist, United’s executive vice president and chief operations officer, said the airline began inspection of its Max 9 fleet on January 12. In a message to United employees, Enqvist outlined the process, which includes removing the inner panel, two rows of seats, and the sidewall liner, enabling workers to access the doors and “inspect and verify the proper installation of the door and frame hardware, as well as the area around the door and seal.”