US regulator grounds Boeing MAX 9 indefinitely, flights cancelled to Tuesday


Boeing shares closed down 2.2 per cent on Friday and are down nearly 12 per cent since the Jan 5 incident. Confidence in Boeing has been shaken since a pair of MAX 9 crashes in 2018 and 2019 killed 346 people and led Congress to pass sweeping reforms to certification of new airplanes.

On Thursday, the FAA announced a formal investigation into the MAX 9, which the FAA said had “significant problems” and noted Boeing’s history of production issues.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is investigating if the MAX 9 jet in the Alaska episode was missing or had improperly tightened bolts.

REGULATOR SEEKS ROOT CAUSES

FAA Administrator Mike Whitaker told Reuters Friday he sees the MAX 9 problems as a manufacturing issue, not a design problem. Noting years of production problems at Boeing, he said: “Whatever’s happening isn’t fixing the problem and requires an extensive review. We are becoming increasingly focused on the manufacturing process.”

The FAA wants to see “where these breakdowns could happen. Are there not enough quality control checks? Are they not in the right places? Is the order of assembly creating some issues?”, he said.

Boeing pledged on Friday to “cooperate fully and transparently with our regulator. We support all actions that strengthen quality and safety and we are taking actions across our production system”.

Whitaker wants to reexamine the long-standing practice of the FAA delegating some critical safety tasks to Boeing.

“I think we should look at third party,” Whitaker told Reuters. “I think it may be an option where there’s a higher level of confidence, where we have more direct oversight ability, and where the folks doing certain critical inspections don’t have a paycheck that’s coming from the manufacturer.”

The Alaska Airlines aircraft, which had been in service for just eight weeks, took off from Portland, Oregon last Friday and was flying at 16,000 feet when the panel tore off the plane. Pilots flew the jet back to Portland, with only minor injuries among passengers.

Alaska and United said preliminary checks found loose parts on multiple grounded aircraft.

Captain Ed Sicher, president of the Allied Pilots Association representing 15,000 pilots at American Airlines, said tighter control by the FAA was “inevitable” given Boeing’s problems. Texas-based American flies a different MAX variant.

“I think there’s an increased level of scepticism and scrutiny over what used to be … an excellent brand,” Sicher told Reuters. “Now everyone is starting to raise an eyebrow and make sure the Ts are crossed and the Is are dotted.”

On Wednesday, Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun acknowledged on CNBC that there was a “quality” issue in allowing the MAX 9 to fly with the problem that caused the blowout.

Since the fatal crashes, critics have said strained budgets at the FAA led the agency to delegate too much responsibility to the planemaker. Since 2019, the agency has cut back on the practice.

“The larger question is does the FAA have the staffing to increase oversight for the long term?” said US aviation safety expert John Cox, adding that the creation of third-party entity would be “highly unusual”.

In March, the FAA said it boosted staff providing regulatory oversight of Boeing to 107 from 82 in prior years.

In 2021, Boeing agreed to pay US$6.6 million in penalties after failing to comply with a 2015 safety agreement. The FAA also launched an outside review of Boeing’s safety culture in January 2023. 



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