A panel that blew off an Alaska Airlines plane midflight last month appears to have been installed at a Boeing factory without four bolts needed to keep it attached, according to a report by federal investigators Tuesday.
The piece appeared intact when it left the manufacturer that initially put it on — a Boeing subcontractor called Spirit AeroSystems — on Aug. 20, the report said. But a photo shared by Boeing employees on Sept. 19 after it was removed for a repair shows three of four key bolts missing, with a fourth not visible in the picture.
Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board could not find any evidence the piece, called a door plug, was reopened between the time the plane left Boeing’s factory and the moment it flew out midair, long after Alaska Airlines had taken possession of it.
Investigators recovered the door in a teacher’s backyard. There was no damage around the bolt-holes, suggesting they were missing at the time of the incident, according to the report.
The findings are likely to increase the pressure on Boeing, one of the world’s largest airplane makers, which has been under intense scrutiny since the initial evidence in the Jan. 5 blowout incident pointed to problems with how the plane was manufactured.
Boeing said in a statement that it had begun new inspections of the doors during the manufacturing process and developed new protocols for how the opening or removal of the door should be documented.
“Whatever final conclusions are reached, Boeing is accountable for what happened,” Boeing chief executive Dave Calhoun said. “An event like this must not happen on an airplane that leaves our factory. We simply must do better for our customers and their passengers.”
Spirit AeroSystems said in a statement that it was “focused on working closely with Boeing and our regulators on continuous improvement in our processes and meeting the highest standards of safety, quality and reliability.”
The accident also has raised questions about the role of the Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates Boeing and other manufacturers. The agency increased its oversight of Boeing following two fatal accidents that involved a different version of the company’s popular 737 Max jets. But the agency’s leader said Tuesday those actions did not go far enough.
At a congressional hearing, FAA Administrator Michael Whitaker, endorsed a more hands-on approach by regulators that could include more inspections and interviews with front-line employees.
“I certainly agree that the current system is not working because it’s not delivering safe aircraft, so we have to make changes to that,” Whitaker told members of the House Aviation Subcommittee, citing last month’s blowout of an Alaska Airlines plane midflight as evidence of that. “I think maybe we need to look at incentives to make sure that safety is getting the appropriate first rung of consideration that it deserves.”
Whitaker said the FAA has sent more inspectors to Boeing’s manufacturing facility in Washington state and to the factory of Spirit AeroSystems in Kansas, which supplies the fuselages for the Boeing 737 Max jets, including the one involved in the Alaska Airlines accident. It is examining Boeing’s manufacturing and quality control systems and has commissioned an outside contractor to examine whether some of the oversight functions delegated to Boeing should be instead handled by a third party.
Whitaker faced questions from lawmakers in the first of what is expected to be several hearings on the Alaska Airlines accident, which terrified and injured passengers and forced an emergency landing. Sen. Maria Cantwell, (D-Wash.), chair of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee said she intends to hold hearings on Boeing’s quality lapses.
Cantwell, who was briefed on NTSB’s preliminary findings Tuesday said in a statement that the report, “underscores how important quality assurance is from manufacturers and how important quality control inspections from both manufacturers and the FAA are to the safety process.”
At Tuesday’s hearing, lawmakers praised Whitaker’s quick response to the crisis including his decisions to immediately ground more than 100 of the 737 Max 9 jets until through inspections could be completed. But they also repeatedly pressed him for assurances that the jets were safe to fly.
“Maintaining our gold standard of aviation safety is vital to the United States and should be an urgent national priority,” said Rep. Garret Graves, (R-La.) chair of the aviation subcommittee.
And members of the panel also urged the Senate colleagues to move quickly to approve a measure to fund the FAA.
The Jan. 5 Alaska Airlines incident forced an emergency landing at Portland International Airport.
The high-profile failure is Boeing’s worst public relations crisis in years and has angered many of the company’s best customers. It has also called into question whether the aerospace giant has lived up to its promises to remake its corporate culture and improve the quality of the aircraft it produces. Calhoun, Boeing’s chief executive, met individually with more than a half-dozen lawmakers last month.
Amid stepped-up scrutiny of its operations, the company announced over the weekend that it identified additional production issues involving some of its 737 Max jets.
In a memo to employees Sunday, Stan Deal, head of the company’s commercial airplanes division, wrote that mis-drilled holes were found in the fuselages of about 50 jets. While the issue does not present any immediate safety issues and does not affect aircraft in operation, the company will correct the problem, Deal wrote.
The plane maker was notified of the misdrilled holes by an employee at Spirit AeroSystems, the Wichita-based company that makes the fuselages. That prompted broader inspections at Boeing, according to statements from both companies.
“In close coordination with Boeing, Spirit will continue delivering fuselages that incorporate additional inspections and known repairs and meet the agreed-upon assembly condition,” said Joe Buccino, a spokesman for Spirit AeroSystems.
Experts praised the FAA in the wake of the Alaska Airlines incident last month after the agency quickly grounded more than 100 737 Max 9 planes, ordering additional inspections. The planes resumed service weeks after the incident. The FAA also launched its own in-depth examinations of Boeing’s manufacturing and quality oversight practices and has taken the unprecedented step of prohibiting the company from increasing the number of 737 Max jets it produces each month, until the agency completes its work. During a briefing with reporters on Monday, Jodi Baker, FAA’s deputy associate administrator for aviation safety, said the agency expects to take about six weeks to gather the necessary data.