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FAA’s Whitaker says agency ‘too hands off’ on Boeing

Agency chief vowed that oversight of the aircraft manufacturer will improve

Mike Whitaker, administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, testifies during a House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing in February.
Mike Whitaker, administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, testifies during a House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing in February. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Federal oversight of Boeing Co. prior to an aircraft door plug blowout in January was “too hands off” and the government “should have had a better handle” on safety, Federal Aviation Administration Administrator Mike Whitaker told lawmakers Thursday in a stark assessment of his own agency’s performance.

In a Senate Commerce Committee hearing, he confirmed senators’ concerns that the agency had been too lenient as Boeing’s quality processes slipped and he promised to beef up oversight as Boeing moves to overhaul its safety culture.

“The results are major safety concerns and are very concerning to me, and, I think, the public,” Committee Chair Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said to Whitaker, reacting to an FAA audit probing Boeing’s safety culture and systems. “You’ve identified, according to news reports, 97 instances at Boeing and 21 instances at [Spirit AeroSystems] of where the procedures and products didn’t meet FAA standards … So I’m very concerned that your oversight is not strong enough.”

While Boeing is under scrutiny for the door plug incident involving one of its 737 Max aircraft, it is seeking to acquire Spirit, a supplier that was previously spun off from the company.

Although many senators have lauded Whitaker’s response to the January door plug incident, some whistleblowers claim that the FAA hasn’t done enough to address the company’s issues since crashes involving 737 Max aircraft in 2018 and 2019 that killed 346 people.

Cantwell said that in 2022 and 2023, the FAA completed 298 individualized audits on Boeing and Spirit Aerosystems that found various problems that Boeing was required to correct. But she said she is concerned that the most recent audit still found similar problems.

“So the question about the audit process itself at the FAA becomes … what do we need to fix in our audit process?” Cantwell said. “Can we really have a new day in creating a safety culture that is so critical for the United States to be the leaders in manufacturing?”

‘Fundamental shift’

Whitaker told senators that FAA oversight of Boeing will improve, citing specific problems documented at the company.

One was an audit following the January incident, which found the company “allegedly failed to comply with manufacturing quality control requirements,” and another was a report from an independent panel commissioned by the FAA that found a disconnected safety culture at Boeing and a safety management system that “causes confusion” among employees at different levels.

The FAA also required Boeing to complete a comprehensive action plan to address issues, which the company submitted on May 30. Whitaker said that the plan “does not mark the end” of FAA’s oversight of Boeing and its suppliers.

“In fact, it’s the beginning of a long journey,” he said. “There must be a fundamental shift in the company’s safety culture in order to holistically address its quality and safety challenges. This is about systemic change, and there’s a lot of work to be done.”

Whitaker noted the FAA has capped production of new 737 Max airplanes, added safety inspectors on the ground at Boeing facilities and has launched multiple active investigations following reports by whistleblowers.

“We have been too much in reactive mode, waiting for an event to occur and analyzing the events to find out what to do differently,” he said. “We’re shifting to a much more proactive approach.”

Clay Foushee, a former director of the FAA’s Office of Audit and Evaluation who has been critical of its past oversight of Boeing, said in an email Thursday that more on-the-ground inspectors is a “great start.” FAA had some inspectors prior to January, but they were “not for in-depth checks,” Foushee said.

Whitaker said during the hearing that the FAA now has three dozen inspectors at the company’s facilities. Foushee said that is “exponentially more” than standard.

Senate not done

Despite the assurances, senators said sharp scrutiny of the FAA will remain in place.

Cantwell focused much of her questioning on the FAA’s safety management system, which she noted is voluntary, and raised concerns about qualification standards for FAA’s aviation safety inspectors. She said she has heard reports that there aren’t enough trained personnel, and not enough of the experienced inspectors are able to train new ones.

Cantwell and Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., also pressed Whitaker on implementing a strong employee reporting system. Sen. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., added she was worried about reports that Boeing retaliates against employees who report safety issues, which Whitaker said FAA is working to address.

Cantwell said after the hearing that Whitaker seems to be committing to a better system for employees to report issues.

“But we have to see the oversight of how he implements that,” she said. “Because when you think about ‘How did we get into the situation,’ the FAA wasn’t playing as aggressively an oversight role … The inspectors are part of that too, because they’ll be a key part of making sure that that system works that way.”

Cantwell said she intends to have Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun testify before the committee soon. Calhoun is scheduled to appear at the Senate Homeland Security Investigations Subcommittee Tuesday as the panel opens its own probe into Boeing safety culture and manufacturing systems.

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