Boeing ordered to halt expansion of 737 Max production amid extended safety probe

Boeing has been told by the US aviation regulator it will not allow expansion of 737 Max aircraft production while safety investigations are continuing.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced additional action to ensure every aircraft is safe after grounding 171 B737 Max 9 jets following a door plug blowing off an Alaska Airlines flight.

The FAA insisted that the January 5 incident “must never happen again” and yesterday informed Boeing it will not grant any production expansion of the Max, including the 737-9 Max. 

“This action comes on top of the FAA’s investigation and ramped up oversight of Boeing and its suppliers,” the US aviation regulator said.

The FAA also approved a “thorough inspection and maintenance process” that must be performed on each of the grounded 171 Boeing 737-9 Max aircraft. 

“Upon successful completion, the aircraft will be eligible to return to service,” it said, without providing a timetable. 

However, Alaska Airlines now expects to bring its first few B737 Max 9s as part of its 65-strong fleet of the type back into scheduled service tomorrow (Friday) following “rigorous” FAA-approved inspections.

The carrier expects all inspections, which take up to 12 hour for each aircraft, to be completed over the next week.

United Airlines said it had received final approval from the FAA to complete the process of returning its 79-strong fleet of 737 Max 9s to service.

Chief operations officer Toby Enqvist was quoted as saying the airline was preparing to start flying the aircraft again from  January 28. 

Ahead of the latest action by the regulator, Boeing Commercial Airplanes chief executive Stan Deal said: “We have let down our airline customers and are deeply sorry for the significant disruption to them, their employees and their passengers. 

“We are taking action on a comprehensive plan to bring these airplanes safely back to service and to improve our quality and delivery performance. 

“We will follow the lead of the FAA and support our customers every step of the way.”

FAA  administrator Mike Whitaker said on Wednesday: “We grounded the Boeing 737-9 Max within hours of the incident over Portland and made clear this aircraft would not go back into service until it was safe.

“The exhaustive, enhanced review our team completed after several weeks of information gathering gives me and the FAA confidence to proceed to the inspection and maintenance phase.

“However, let me be clear – this won’t be back to business as usual for Boeing. We will not agree to any request from Boeing for an expansion in production or approve additional production lines for the 737 Max until we are satisfied that the quality control issues uncovered during this process are resolved.”

He added: “The quality assurance issues we have seen are unacceptable. That is why we will have more boots on the ground closely scrutinising and monitoring production and manufacturing activities.”

The FAA approved the detailed set of inspection and maintenance instructions after a “thorough review” of data from 40 inspections of grounded aircraft. 

“Following the completion of the enhanced maintenance and inspection process on each aircraft, the door plugs on the 737-9 Max will be in compliance with the original design which is safe to operate,” the FAA added. 

“This aircraft will not operate until the process is complete and compliance with the original design is confirmed.”

The FAA will continue to support the National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB) investigation into Alaska Airlines Flight 1282.

The FAA convened 24 experts in early last year to review Boeing’s safety management processes and how they affect the manufacturer’s safety culture. The FAA expects the report within weeks. 

The results of the Boeing safety future review will also inform the agency regarding further action. 

The panel has been reviewing thousands of documents, interviewed more than 250 Boeing employees, managers and executives, supplier staff, FAA employees, and visited several Boeing sites as well as [supplier] Spirit AeroSystems’ facility in Wichita.

Boeing said in response: “We will continue to co-operate fully and transparently with the FAA and follow their direction as we take action to strengthen safety and quality at Boeing. 

“We will also work closely with our airline customers as they complete the required inspection procedures to safely return their 737-9 airplanes to service.”

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