Nearly three weeks after a hole opened in a Boeing 737 Max 9 during an Alaska Airlines flight, terrifying passengers, new details about the plane's production are intensifying scrutiny of Boeing's quality control practices.
About a month before the Max 9 was delivered to Alaska Airlines in October, workers at Boeing's Renton, Washington, factory opened and then reinstalled the panel that would blow up the plane's body, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Employees opened the panel, known as a door plug, because they needed to work on its rivets, which are often used to join and secure parts on airplanes, said the person, who requested anonymity because they are not authorized to do so. she to speak publicly as the National Transportation Safety Board conducts an investigation.
The request to open the cap came from employees at Spirit AeroSystems, a supplier that makes the body of the 737 Max in Wichita, Kansas. After Boeing employees complied, Spirit employees working at Boeing's Renton factory repaired the rivets. Boeing employees then reinstalled the door.
An internal system that tracks maintenance work at the facility, which assembles the 737s, shows the maintenance request but does not contain information about whether the door plug was inspected after it was replaced, the person said.
The details could begin to answer a crucial question about why the door plug came off Flight 1282 at 16,000 feet, forcing pilots to make an emergency landing at Portland International Airport in Oregon minutes after takeoff. On January 5. where an emergency exit door would be if a plane had more seats. To stay in place, the plug relies primarily on a pair of bolts at the top and another pair at the bottom, as well as metal pins and pads on the sides.
The Seattle Times reported Wednesday that Boeing had removed and reinstalled the door plug.
The FAA on Wednesday approved detailed instructions for how airlines should inspect door plugs on about 170 grounded planes. The instructions tell airlines to retighten the door stopper fasteners, check the door stopper bolts and hardware, and repair any damage they find. Airlines can begin flying the planes again after completing inspections.
Also on Wednesday, Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun met privately with lawmakers in Congress. It was the second time in recent years that the company and its leaders had to answer for serious problems with their planes. In 2018 and 2019, two 737 Max 8 crashes killed 346 people.
“The American flying public and Boeing line workers deserve a leadership culture at Boeing that puts safety before profits,” Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington state, Democratic chairwoman of the Commerce, Science Committee, said Wednesday. and Transportation. She added that she would hold hearings “to investigate the root causes of these security failures.”
The way the panel was installed at the Boeing factory will almost certainly be the focus of federal investigations. In addition to the NTSB, the FAA is investigating the incident and manufacturing practices at Boeing and Spirit.
Citing the open NTSB investigation, Boeing referred questions to the agency, which declined to comment. The FAA did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Boeing's handling of the door plug. A Spirit AeroSystems spokesperson said the company remained “focused on the quality of every airframe that leaves our facility.”
John Cox, a former airline pilot who runs a security consulting company, said the new information about the door stopper, if correct, would be an indication of “process failure” and raise questions about the entire operation. of Boeing manufacturing.
“Are there similar problems in other areas besides the door?” he said. “You have to observe the entire assembly process.”
The FAA said Wednesday that it would not allow Boeing to expand production of any new 737 Max series airplanes, a linchpin of the company's commercial airplane business, until the agency was satisfied that quality control had improved.
Calhoun suggested this month that a manufacturing fault had been responsible for the door stopper explosion. But it was unclear whether the error, which Calhoun referred to as a “quality leak,” occurred at the Boeing factory in Renton or at the Spirit facility in Wichita, where the door plug was first installed.
The incident has raised new concerns about Boeing's quality control among investors, airline executives, pilots, passengers and others, as well as regulators. Boeing's stock price has fallen 14 percent since the explosion.
In recent days, several airline executives have sharply criticized the company, a major supplier about which they rarely complain publicly.
“I'm angry,” Alaska Airlines CEO Ben Minicucci told NBC News on Tuesday, adding that the airline found loose bolts on “many” of its Max 9s. “My demand to Boeing is what are they going to do to improve their internal quality programs”.
Scott Kirby, CEO of United Airlines, told CNBC on Tuesday that “the suspension of the Max 9 is probably the straw that broke the camel's back for us.” He also said he was concerned that Boeing would not soon be able to deliver another 737 Max plane the airline had ordered, the Max 10. That model has not yet been certified by the FAA.
“At least we're going to build a plan that doesn't include the Max 10,” Kirby said.
For now, Boeing remains in damage control mode. Calhoun last week visited the Spirit AeroSystems factory, a plant the plane maker sold in 2005. And Boeing said this week it planned to hold a “quality retreat” on Thursday, during which production, delivery and support teams I would stop working to attend quality learning sessions.
The company said it intended to place similar pauses at all of its factories and commercial aircraft manufacturing sites in the coming weeks.
James Glanz, Santul Nerkar and Bernhard Warner contributed reports.
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