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Boeing promises big changes as the plane maker looks to rebuild trust and quality

The Federal Aviation Administration says it will continue to hold Boeing accountable after reviewing "the company’s roadmap to fix its systemic safety and quality-control issues." The 90-day review follows the in-flight door plug blowout on an Alaska Airlines 737 Max in January. Boeing finishes final assembly of its jets at at its facility in Renton, Wash.
Jovelle Tamayo for NPR
The Federal Aviation Administration says it will continue to hold Boeing accountable after reviewing "the company’s roadmap to fix its systemic safety and quality-control issues." The 90-day review follows the in-flight door plug blowout on an Alaska Airlines 737 Max in January. Boeing finishes final assembly of its jets at at its facility in Renton, Wash.

WASHINGTON — Boeing is promising sweeping changes to its manufacturing operations as the troubled plane maker tries to rebuild trust with federal regulators, airlines and the flying public.

It’s been just over 90 days since the Federal Aviation Administration ordered Boeing to come up with a comprehensive plan to fix its quality control problems after a door plug panel blew off a new 737 Max jet in midair.

Boeing leaders, including CEO Dave Calhoun, presented the final plan in a three-hour meeting with FAA officials in Washington on Thursday morning.

After the meeting, federal regulators vowed to continue their enhanced oversight of the company for the foreseeable future. 

“This plan does not mark the end of our increased oversight of Boeing and its suppliers, but the beginning of the next chapter,” said FAA administrator Mike Whitaker. "Boeing has laid out their roadmap and now they need to execute.”

Boeing released an executive summary of the plan, promising to strengthen the company’s safety management system, to train employees better, and to increase oversight of suppliers.

No one was seriously injured in the midair blowout on Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 in January. But the incident renewed serious concerns about safety and quality control at Boeing after the deadly crashes of two 737 Max jets in 2018 and 2019 that killed a total of 346 people.

A preliminary investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board determined that four key bolts that were supposed to hold the door plug in place were missing when the plane left Boeing's factory.

The incident prompted the FAA to undertake a six-week audit of Boeing’s production lines. Regulators say they found quality control problems at Boeing and Spirit AeroSystems, one of its top suppliers, which builds the fuselage for the 737.

Boeing also responded to the FAA audit's findings in the plan it delivered on Thursday. And the company laid out a list of metrics that regulators will use to track the company’s progress.

Whitaker promised that the FAA would be watching closely. He said the agency would continue to put more inspectors in Boeing’s factories, as well as those of its suppliers, and that regulators would meet weekly with Boeing leaders to track their progress. 

Whitaker said the FAA would not lift its production cap on Boeing’s 737 line until it’s satisfied that the company is following through on its promises. 

“We need to see a strong and unwavering commitment to safety and quality that endures over time,” Whitaker said at a press conference Thursday. “This is about systemic change, and there's a lot of work to be done.”

The FAA did not put a timeline on when Boeing can begin to increase production of the 737. The company has slowed production to well below the FAA’s cap of 38 planes per month as it works to improve quality. 

But Boeing has said it aims to ramp up that number in the second half of the year. That’s something airlines desperately need, as they’ve been forced to cut flights and scale back their growth targets.  

The Alaska Airlines blowout also triggered a management shakeup at Boeing. Several top executives in the commercial aviation division left the company, and CEO Dave Calhoun announced he would step down at the end of the year.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.
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