By David Shepardson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The head of the Federal Aviation Administration told Reuters on Friday that the agency plans “closer monitoring” of the 737 MAX 9 after the plane returns to service following a mid-air cabin blowout.
FAA Administrator Mike Whitaker said in a telephone interview it is “pretty clear” the Alaska Airlines 737 MAX 9 cabin blowout was a manufacturing issue, not a design problem, and vowed a comprehensive audit of Boeing production issues that will start with the 737 MAX 9 and extend to other planes as warranted by the data.
“This has been going on for a while and whatever’s happening isn’t fixing the problem,” Whitaker said, adding he would not approve the MAX 9 return to flights until the agency is convinced “there’s no chance of this happening again.”
The Jan. 5 incident on Alaska Air Flight 1282 occurred as the jet climbed following takeoff from Portland, Oregon.
The FAA said in a statement earlier on Friday that it will conduct a new audit of the Boeing 737 MAX 9 production line and its suppliers and may undertake further audits depending on the results.
Whitaker said the FAA plans “closer monitoring of the data and continuous monitoring of the situation” as the MAX 9 returns to service.
Whitaker, who has been on the job since October, said the FAA audit “is to look at the system, look at how the inspections are done, where they’re done, how the interaction is with the suppliers, how the handoff happens, just the whole process to really understand how it works and where the faults might be.”
Whitaker said he did not have opinions on whether Boeing needed management changes as a result of the incident. “My focus is on making sure we get the company to a point where they’re building safe airplanes that are airworthy and stay airworthy.”
Boeing did not immediately comment on the FAA’s latest move or Whitaker’s comments. On Thursday, the company said it would “cooperate fully and transparently with the FAA and the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) on their investigations.”
Whitaker said the ongoing certification review of the Boeing 737 MAX 7 was separate from the ongoing MAX 9 safety review and declined further comment.
Referring to the MAX 9 investigation, he said the agency was taking its time “to understand what happened” and noted the cabin panel that blew out was a door plug design that is used safely on another aircraft.
“I think it’s pretty clear to us it’s a manufacturing issue,” Whitaker said, adding the FAA is “going through a process to work out how to restore confidence in the integrity of these plug doors.”
The FAA has closely scrutinized Boeing’s quality and other issues in recent years. The agency has said it continues to inspect each 737 MAX and 787 aircraft before an “airworthiness certificate is issued and cleared for delivery.” Typically the FAA delegates airplane ticketing authority to the manufacturer.
Whitaker said he was not sure how the door plug was inspected but that this would be reviewed, and he noted that the MAX 9 has about 500,000 parts. “We’re certainly not looking at every part, but so you have to have a quality control system that does that … and (is) robust enough to see if something is not properly assembled.”
(Reporting by David Shepardson in Washington; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Matthew Lewis)