April 17, 2024

Boeing gets Senate scrutiny after scary incidents and whistleblower complaints



Two Senate panels Wednesday will probe what’s gone wrong at Boeing. But Washington’s relationship with the United States’ most important plane manufacturer will be the inevitable subtext.

Boeing’s safety practices are facing increasing scrutiny following a series of alarming incidents involving its planes, including a high-profile incident in which a door panel on a 737 MAX jet blew off midair over Oregon — and more whistleblowers coming forward with allegations.

Along with obvious questions about Boeing’s planes themselves — such as, “Is it safe to put my family on one?” — lawmakers said they plan to take a deeper look at the Federal Aviation Administration and whether it’s done enough to protect passengers.

Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), chair of the Senate Commerce Aviation subcommittee, said Tuesday that the partnership that allows companies such as Boeing to essentially certify their aircraft as safe (with the agency’s oversight) “needs to be re-looked at.” Congress mandated that partnership decades ago, and has repeatedly expanded it, in the name of speeding up approvals without a massive increase in federal staff.

“FAA has essentially told us that Boeing safety culture is dysfunctional, and that despite Boeing saying that they have made fixes, they have not,” Duckworth told reporters on Tuesday.

Duckworth said she will be listening for suggestions for how to help the FAA “to take a closer look and scrutinize Boeing’s actions,” as well as indications that the agency “is willing to use its civil enforcement authority when appropriate.”

The FAA didn’t have any comment ahead of the hearings, but Administrator Mike Whitaker has stressed for weeks that the agency plans to hold Boeing “accountable every step of the way, with mutually understood milestones and expectations” — including what happens when it doesn’t comply with those expectations.

Asked for comment, Boeing pointed to previous statements detailing its respect for the Senate Homeland Security Committee’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. That panel, which invited Boeing to testify, is the second hearing of the day. “We have offered to provide documents, testimony and technical briefings, and are in discussions with the Subcommittee regarding next steps,” the statement read.

After Boeing’s most recent string of fatal disasters, in which two crashes of the 737 MAX 8 killed 346 people in Indonesia and Ethiopia in 2018 and 2019, Congress mandated some changes to the way the FAA’s delegated-oversight program works. But after years of expansions in that program, it would be costly to send its functions back to the FAA entirely. Most likely, Congress would make changes around the margins, as it did after those two MAX crashes.

The Senate Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over aviation policy and will kick off the day’s hearings at 10 a.m., is already in the midst of pushing through a must-pass aviation policy bill. However, that bill is in the homestretch, and committee Chair Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) has said she won’t reopen it to address any Boeing shortcomings.

That’s partly because the bill contains other vital changes to the aviation system, which has been under strain amid a spate of air traffic control staffing shortages and airplane near-misses, and also because of how hard it is for Congress to pass much of anything. Instead, she plans a separate bill specific to Boeing and other manufacturer’s shortcomings.

The other panel, the Senate Homeland Security Committee’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, will hear at 11:15 a.m. from four witnesses, some of whom have been on Boeing’s plant floors over the course of their careers. Those include whistleblowers Ed Pierson, a former employee who worked on the MAX 8 program, and Sam Salehpour, a current Boeing engineer who alleges that the company took dangerous shortcuts with its 777 and 787 programs.

The committees could also drag in the safety practices at Boeing’s MAX fuselage-maker Spirit Aerosystems — a company headed by former Trump administration acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan that Boeing is trying to reacquire — though neither company is expected to be represented at either hearing.

After January’s door blowout on an Alaska Airlines 737 MAX, the FAA launched a preliminary audit that found that both Boeing and Spirit AeroSystems had failed to meet significant quality control requirements.

Meanwhile, the FAA has installed more inspectors at Boeing’s facilities to ensure its work meets standards. But Whitaker, the FAA chief, has conceded that two dozen or so extra bodies isn’t what it’ll take to strengthen Boeing’s methods.

The FAA has also imposed strict limits on the number of planes Boeing is allowed to manufacture until it shows its quality control practices have improved. That restriction — despite Boeing already struggling to meet the production limit before the incident even occurred — and additional certification delays for some of its MAX aircraft has cut into the company’s revenue and spurred complaints from airline customers, adding to pressures that led CEO David Calhoun to announce his resignation last month.

Speaking about the whistleblower hearing, Duckworth said what she’s heard so far only reinforces what appear to be long-standing issues at Boeing. The accounts are not “inconsistent with what we’ve already found through the various [National Transportation Safety Board] and FAA investigations,” she said.