Boeing slapped with production restrictions as FAA investigates near-disaster on 737-9 MAX

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Boeing 737 MAX grounded
Boeing will be prevented from increasing production on some MAX models as the FAA reviews the company's manufacturing processes. (PHOTO: Shutterstock)

Singapore SA2024The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has slapped Boeing with restrictions on its production of 737 MAX airplanes following the 5 January near-disaster on an Alaska Airlines flight in which a so-called “door plug” blew off the plane. The incident grounded 171 MAX -9 models for inspections by carriers flying the model. United Airlines and Alaska Airlines, which account for most of the carriers using that model, reported finding loose bolts on the grounded planes and are expressing their displeasure, in public, with Boeing and its manufacturing processes.

“The (5 January) Boeing 737-9 MAX incident must never happen again,” the FAA said in a statement issued on 24 January. “The FAA today informed Boeing it will not grant any production expansion of the MAX, including the 737-9 MAX. This action comes on top of the FAA’s investigation and ramped up oversight of Boeing and its suppliers. The FAA today also approved a thorough inspection and maintenance process that must be performed on each of the grounded 171 Boeing 737-9 MAX aircraft. Upon successful completion, the aircraft will be eligible to return to service.”

“We grounded the Boeing 737-9 MAX within hours of the incident over Portland and made clear this aircraft would not go back into service until it was safe,” FAA Administrator Mike Whitaker said. “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.”

The FAA approved this detailed set of inspection and maintenance instructions after a thorough review of data from 40 inspections of grounded planes. The FAA also convened a Corrective Action Review Board (CARB). The CARB, made up of safety experts, scrutinised and approved the inspection and maintenance process. Following the completion of the enhanced maintenance and inspection process on each aircraft, the door plugs on the 737-9 MAX 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.

After grounding the Boeing 737-9 MAX aircraft in early January, the FAA has laid out a series of actions to increase oversight of Boeing’s production lines. “The quality assurance issues we have seen are unacceptable,” said Whitaker. “That is why we will have more boots on the ground closely scrutinising 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 scrutinising 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.

In early 2023, the FAA convened 24 experts to review Boeing’s safety management processes and how they affect Boeing’s safety culture. The FAA expects the report within weeks. The results of the Boeing Safety Culture Review report will also inform the agency regarding future action. 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 has been reviewing thousands of documents, 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.

MAX-8 handed over to China Southern
In the good news department for Boeing, the plane maker on Wednesday (24 January) handed over a 737-8 MAX model to a Chinese airline for the first time since the best-seller was grounded in early 2019 following two crashes that killed 346 people and which were blamed on Boeing’s MCAS system. A China Southern Airlines MAX left Seattle on its way to China, according to a report by Bloomberg News.

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Matthew Driskill is the Editor of Asian Aviation and is based in Cambodia. He has been an Asia-based journalist and content producer since 1990 for outlets including Reuters and the International Herald Tribune/New York Times and is a former president of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Hong Kong. He frequently appears on international broadcast outlets like CNN, Al Jazeera and the BBC and has taught journalism at Hong Kong University and the American University of Paris. Driskill has received awards from the Associated Press for Investigative Reporting and Business Writing and in 1989 was named the John J. McCloy Fellow by the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University in New York where he earned his Master's Degree.

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