By Dan Catchpole
Special Coverage of the Boeing crisis
Jan. 24, 2024 © Leeham News: The Federal Aviation Administration said Wednesday it will not approve a planned expansion of Boeing 737 MAX production. The agency also laid out a path to get MAX 9 airplanes back flying.
The jetliners were grounded on January 6 after a door plug blew out the day before from a two-month-old 737 MAX 9 flown by Alaska Airlines. The FAA investigation found significant quality lapses in the program. Inspection of the MAX 9 fleet found problems in other airplanes.
After grounding the 171 MAX 9 airplanes operated by Alaska (65) and United Airlines (79), the FAA “made clear this aircraft would not go back into service until it was safe,” FAA Administrator Mike Whitaker said Wednesday in a public statement (Emphasis added). “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 said.
“The quality assurance issues we have seen are unacceptable,” Whitaker said. “That is why we will have more boots on the ground closely scrutinizing and monitoring production and manufacturing activities.”
Alaska Airlines “found some loose bolts on many of our MAX 9s,” the airline’s CEO Ben Minicucci told NBC Nightly News in an interview broadcast Tuesday.
“It makes me mad. It makes me mad that we’re finding issues like that on brand new airplanes,” he said.
“I’m beyond frustrated and disappointed. I’m angry,” he said. “This happened to Alaska Airlines. It happened to our passengers and it happened to our employees.”
Boeing issued a statement on Tuesday saying that “let down our airline customers and are deeply sorry for the significant disruption to the, their employees and their passengers.”
It is the latest disruption to the single-aisle airplane program. The aerospace giant has struggled to increase production rates ever since two crashes of MAX 8s in 2018 and in 2019 grounded the airplanes. Boeing executives in October reiterated plans to increase production this year.
The FAA on Wednesday laid out parts of its plan for increasing oversight of the program:
The agency also approved inspection and maintenance instructions to get grounded 737 MAX 9s back in the air. After completing the procedures on an aircraft, “the door plugs on the 737-9 MAX will be in compliance with the original design which is safe to operate,” the FAA said in its statement. “This aircraft will not operate until the process is complete and compliance with the original design is confirmed.”
The process requires:
The FAA also expects results soon from a review by 24 experts of Boeing’s safety management processes and their effects on the company’s safety culture.
IAM District 751, which represents the thousand of machinists who assemble Boeing airplanes, issued a statement Wednesday evening by the district’s President and Directing Business Representative Jon Holden:
“We are eagerly awaiting the completion of the NTSB investigation and the release of its findings. The safety and quality of the manufacturing infrastructure are paramount in every task our members undertake at The Boeing Company.
“Recognizing this, IAM District 751 actively engaged in a recent tri-party agreement involving our Union, Boeing, and the FAA to address membership concerns related to manufacturing processes, airworthiness, and other related matters,” Holden said.
“Through this partnership, the agreement allows all parties to identify and investigate issues with full transparency. Our members are resolute in their dedication to maintaining quality inspections and strengthening the manufacturing and quality processes, ensuring that the production process reaches the highest standards of safety possible.”
Plans for the union and Boeing to begin contract negotiations in February were delayed after the 737 MAX 9 accident.
With the FAA freezing production at the current rate of about 31 per month (372 per year), hundreds of airplanes can’t be delivered to airlines or lessors for an indefinite period.
Boeing hoped to be at rate 38/mo at the end of last year, but struggled to achieve this rate. Boeing deliveries last year included 737s that were in “inventory,” ie, those that were stored from the first MAX grounding from March 2019 for 21 months.
Boeing guided investors to achieving a production rate of 50/mo by the end of next year. Interim “rate breaks” increasing production were to be achieved this year and into next year to achieve the rate of 50 per month.
Boeing also planned to open a 737 production line in the Everett (WA) widebody facility in space abandoned when production of the 747-8 ended in January 2023. This line was to be dedicated to the MAX 10 and the MAX 8200. The latter is the high density version of the best selling MAX 8.
These plans are now on hold indefinitely.
United Airlines, Alaska and Delta Air Lines are big MAX 10 customers. Ryanair is a big customer of the MAX 10 and the MAX 8200. There are orders for nearly 1,100 MAX 10s worldwide. The MAX 8200 is being produced at the main Renton (WA) plant. The MAX 10 certification remains in limbo while the FAA sought more information.
This freeze of expanding production rates and the new line adds further uncertainty.
Scott Hamilton contributed to this story.