(Story updated to clarify audit relates to FAA oversight)
The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Office of the Inspector General confirmed Wednesday that it will conduct an audit of the FAA's oversight of Boeing’s 737 and 787 assembly lines in Renton, Washington, and Charleston, South Carolina, respectively. The move follows several complaints received by Congress, the FAA, and the IG's office about ongoing production deficiencies and undue pressure on the company’s staff.
Scheduled at the behest of chairmen and ranking members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and its aviation subcommittee, the audit will center on an evaluation of the FAA’s oversight of Boeing’s 737 and 787 production. Specifically, it will focus on Boeing's processes for identifying and resolving production issues and addressing allegations of unjustified pressure on employees at the plants.
In a statement, the DOT’s IG office said it will begin the audit next month at FAA headquarters and regional offices responsible for overseeing Boeing production, as well as relevant Boeing locations.
Boeing halted Dreamliner shipments late in 2020 and eventually managed to deliver two by the end of the first quarter of 2021. It delivered another 12 through late May when it again had to suspend shipments due to an FAA request for further documentation related to quality problems.
In September 2020, Boeing found that mechanics clamped together certain components in the horizontal stabilizer with greater force than required by engineering specifications, resulting in possible improper gap verification or shimming as workers assembled the component. That issue further slowed deliveries as the company performed special inspections to address imperfections in fuselage skins and shimming problems within some of the airplanes’ aft fuselages first discovered in 2019.
More recently, Boeing revealed in July last year that it found further problems involving the forward pressure bulkhead. During the inspections, engineers found small gaps between two sections of the bulkhead and reported the problem to the FAA. Rework involves the removal and replacement of the component.
Then, in October, Boeing found that a subsupplier used faulty titanium in parts supplied by Leonardo. Boeing said the problem did not present a safety-of-flight issue, but it did complicate its efforts to return the 787 to service.
Speaking during the company’s first-quarter earnings call on April 27, Boeing CEO David Calhoun reported that the company had just submitted a paperwork package for the 787 program to the FAA. A week earlier, Reuters reported that Boeing had told customers it would resume delivering 787s in the second half of this year.
Around the same time, Boeing said it had completed re-work on the initial 787s affected by the delivery halt and that it continued to work closely with the FAA on the timing of resuming deliveries. It added that the program continues to produce airplanes “at a very low rate” and will continue to do so until deliveries resume. While the company plans for a gradual return to a production rate of five airplanes per month “over time,” it also anticipates 787 abnormal costs of some $2 billion, most of which it expects to incur by the end of 2023, including $312 million recorded in the first quarter of this year.
Meanwhile, the 737 Max, whose twin fatal crashes in October 2018 and March 2019 resulted in a 20-month grounding by the FAA and other global aviation authorities, has again come under scrutiny following reports by the Australian Broadcasting Company of six midair emergencies and dozens of groundings in the year following the lifting of the grounding order.
In fact, a stricter regulatory environment resulting from the crashes has slowed certification progress on the latest variants, the Max 7 and Max 10. But recent U.S. legislation that requires a modern crew alerting system in new aircraft certified after Jan. 1, 2023, appeared the most pressing concern for Boeing, which must demonstrate to the FAA that the current cockpit configuration in the Max 10 ensures an equivalent level of safety to aircraft with an engine indicating and crew alerting system (EICAS).
If the Max 10 does not gain certification by the end of this year, Boeing will need to get an exception to extend the effective deadline or face the prospect of redesigning the avionics system to include an EICAS, which would cost it not only valuable time but erode the commonality between variants so valued by airline customers.
Despite the time pressure that resulted from the legislation known as the Aircraft Certification, Safety, and Accountability Act (ACSAA), Boeing vice president for the 737 Max return to service Mike Fleming told a gathering of reporters in Seattle recently that the company would not rush through any of the required steps. Addressing a question about whether he personally thought Boeing would win certification by the end of the year, he answered, “it’s indeterminate.” Neither would he identify a time for when Boeing might have to ask for an extension of the cutoff date.