FAA chief faces questions on Boeing oversight at House hearing

The head of the Federal Aviation Administration plans to tell lawmakers on Capitol Hill that he will use the “full extent” of the agency's enforcement powers to ensure Boeing is held accountable for any “noncompliance issues” that could have led to last month's Alaska. Air accident, in which part of one of the company's 737 Max 9s broke off in mid-flight.

“In the future, we will have more troops on the ground closely scrutinizing and monitoring production and manufacturing activities,” FAA Administrator Michael Whitaker will say, according to testimony prepared for Tuesday's hearing. before the House Aviation Subcommittee. “Boeing employees are encouraged to use our FAA hotline to report any safety concerns.”

Still, Whitaker will likely face tough questions regarding his oversight of the aircraft maker. His agency had already committed to strengthening oversight of Boeing five years ago after two fatal accidents involving Boeing Max aircraft. In a letter to Whitaker last week, lawmakers asked about the status of reforms following crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia that killed 346 people.

Alaska 737 Max explosion raises new questions about FAA oversight of Boeing

“I look forward to updates on what the FAA has learned so far in its ongoing reviews following the Boeing 737 Max 9 problems and the Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 incident, in addition to Administrator's thoughts on the bipartisan House FAA reauthorization bill that has been held up in the Senate for more than six months,” Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.), chairman of the House, said Monday. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “I want to hear directly from the Administrator about how this long-awaited bill will help the FAA carry out its many critical missions and improve aviation safety.”

The National Transportation Safety Board is set to release its preliminary report on the Jan. 5 Alaska Airlines incident that forced an emergency landing at Portland International Airport. The report could provide some early clues as to why part of the plane, known as the door plug, exploded, leaving a gaping hole in the side of the plane.

The high-profile failure represents Boeing's worst public relations crisis in years and has angered many of the company's top customers. It also calls into question whether the aerospace giant has kept promises to overhaul its corporate culture and improve the quality of the planes it produces. Boeing Chief Executive David Calhoun met individually with more than a half-dozen lawmakers last month.

As part of increased scrutiny of its operations, the company announced over the weekend that it has identified additional production issues involving some of its 737 Max jets.

Boeing discovers new problem with 737 Max fuselages

In a memo to employees Sunday, Stan Deal, head of the company's commercial aircraft division, wrote that improperly drilled holes had been discovered in the fuselages of about 50 planes. Although the problem presents no immediate safety concerns and does not affect aircraft currently in operation, the company will correct the problem, Deal wrote.

The plane maker was informed of the improperly drilled holes by an employee of Spirit AeroSystems, the Wichita-based company that makes the fuselages. This prompted broader inspections at Boeing, according to statements from both companies.

“In close coordination with Boeing, Spirit will continue to deliver fuselages that incorporate additional inspections and known repairs and meet agreed upon assembly conditions,” said Joe Buccino, Spirit AeroSystems spokesperson.

Experts praised the FAA following the Alaska Airlines incident last month, after the agency quickly grounded more than 100 737 Max 9 planes, ordering additional inspections. The planes returned to service weeks after the incident. The FAA also launched its own sweeping reviews of Boeing's manufacturing and quality control practices and took the unprecedented step of banning the company from increasing the number of 737 Max jets it produces each month , until the agency has completed its work. In a briefing with reporters Monday, Jodi Baker, the FAA's deputy assistant administrator for aviation safety, said the agency expects to take about six weeks to collect the necessary data.

“Let me emphasize: We will follow the data and take appropriate and necessary actions,” Whitaker said in his written testimony. “The safety of the traveling public will continue to inform our decision-making.”

In a conference call Jan. 31, Boeing's Calhoun said that whatever conclusions are drawn about the Alaska Airlines crash, “Boeing is responsible for what happened.”

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