Boeing Blowout: FAA tightens its oversight of the company Regulators say they're increasing control of Boeing production after a panel blew off a 737 Max 9 jet, and will re-examine whether the company can be trusted to assess the safety of its own planes.

The FAA is tightening oversight of Boeing and will audit production of the 737 Max 9

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The Federal Aviation Administration is tightening its oversight of Boeing. The FAA says it will begin auditing production of Boeing's 737 MAX 9 planes. This after a panel blew off of an Alaska Airlines flight in midair last week. Regulators say they will reexamine the longstanding practice of delegating some of their oversight authority to Boeing. NPR's Joel Rose covers transportation. He is here in the studio with us now. Hi there.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Hello.

KELLY: Tell me more about how exactly the FAA plans to step up oversight.

ROSE: Yeah, in a couple of ways. The FAA says it will start auditing production of these 737 MAX 9 planes, both at Boeing and at its suppliers. And another big thing regulators said today is that they will reexamine this practice of allowing Boeing employees to perform some safety analysis of the company's planes. The FAA has long outsourced some of its oversight to authorized employees at Boeing and other manufacturers. And the agency relies on them partly because these planes are incredibly complicated and partly because the FAA itself just doesn't have the resources to do all of this analysis and inspection itself. This practice is known as delegation of authority. And FAA administrator Mike Whitaker said in a statement today that, quote, "it is time to reexamine the delegation of authority and assess any associated safety risks."

KELLY: Well, and I thought safety and oversight were the FAA's whole job. So how big a change would this actually be?

ROSE: You know, it could be very big. The FAA is talking about possibly moving some quality oversight responsibilities to a third party, taking them away from Boeing, which is something safety advocates have been calling for for a while. They say Boeing is so focused on making money and sticking to its production targets that safety concerns can sometimes get pushed to the side. I talked to David Soucie. He is a former FAA safety inspector and the author of a book called "Why Planes Crash." And he thinks today's announcement is long overdue.

DAVID SOUCIE: This is a very smart move by the FAA to look at the possibility of having a third party outside of the company tell Boeing whether the decisions they're making are safe or whether they're not safe. The drive for profitability may just be overriding this ability to have an independent delegation within the organization.

ROSE: Soucie has been very critical, I should say, of the FAA in the past for not moving quickly enough, for example, to ground Boeing's MAX 8 series of planes after two crashes in 2018 and 2019 that killed more than 340 people, although the FAA did ultimately ground those planes for well over a year. Soucie says the agency's reaction to this incident has been very different.

KELLY: Just following - you just noted those two crashes in 2018 and 2019. Boeing's problems with safety are obviously not new. So why is the FAA making this potentially big move now?

ROSE: Well, the agency says it's concerned about multiple production-related issues at Boeing and its suppliers, as well as this latest issue with the 737 MAX 9. Beyond that, I think the FAA is under growing pressure from Congress. Yesterday, the chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, Maria Cantwell, sent a scathing letter to the FAA administrator, saying the agency's oversight has not been, quote, "effective at making sure that Boeing's airplanes are in condition for safe operation" and also demanding that the FAA provide records from its oversight of Boeing and some of its suppliers. Cantwell today welcomed the FAA's announcement that it would begin auditing production of the 737 MAX 9. nine.

KELLY: What's been the reaction from Boeing?

ROSE: Well, the company has been very apologetic so far. They say they will cooperate fully and transparently with the FAA. Boeing CEO David Calhoun this week called the incident, quote, "a quality escape" and a mistake, said that it can never happen again.

KELLY: And just briefly, what does all this mean for air travel?

ROSE: Well, changing the way the FAA oversees Boeing would be a huge shift in the whole industry, all of its suppliers. That would take a long time to play out. In the short run, United and Alaska Airlines have canceled hundreds of flights a day as their fleets of these planes remain grounded. And the FAA does not seem to be in a rush. It says the safety of the flying public and not speed will determine when they return to service.

KELLY: Thank you, Joel. NPR's Joel Rose.

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