Senate Committee Reviews Boeing’s (and others) Manufacturing Shortfalls

On Thursday, June 13th, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Technology convened for a hearing on Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) oversight of manufacturing in aviation. More specifically, Chair Maria Cantwell (D-WA) pulled this hearing together to hear from FAA Administrator Mike Whitaker about Boeing’s safety plans, including a recent action plan for improving manufacturing and production quality and overall safety performance, as well as the FAA’s broader responsibilities in aviation safety oversight.  

Aviation manufacturing practices, particularly those of Boeing, have been at the forefront of safety conversations in recent years. While the safety issues and incidents stemming from Boeing’s practices would require more characters than this article allows, these failures have been well-documented by numerous sources. Of the many noteworthy incidents, deadly plane crashes in 2018 and 2019, which led to the loss of 346 individuals, were a result of the failure to convey information and related training to pilots on added automation software, or MCAS, in updated Max aircraft versions. This year began with a door plug detaching from an aircraft mid-flight due to the failure of a safety team in reinstalling bolts to a panel. 

While the Boeing issues have been extensive, the ongoing concerns in aviation safety have also called into question the effectiveness of FAA strategies in regulating aviation manufacturing. The newly appointed Administrator Whitaker, confirmed by the Senate in October of 2023, has been leading the new charge in getting the wheels back on the bus, or plane (which can be taken literally in this case). For the sake of clarity on a few important events discussed during the hearing, here is a brief timeline of major happenings related to oversight: 

  • December 2015: In a FAA settlement agreement, Boeing was required to adopt a safety management system. Chair Cantwell noted this is not quite complete at the time of this hearing.  
  • 2022 and 2023: The FAA conducted 298 specialized audits of various Boeing practices.  
  • October 2023: FAA Administrator Whitaker was unanimously confirmed by the Senate.  
  • January 2024: A week after the door plug incident, Chair Cantwell sent a letter to the FAA requesting an audit of Boeing and Spirit AeroSystems (a supplier for fuselages and other components) practices. The following day, Administrator Whitaker launched a series of more than 100 audits which found 97 instances at Boeing and 21 instances at Spirit AeroSystems where products did not meet FAA standards. These audits also revealed issues for Boeing engineers in responding to questions about quality control systems and policies.  
  • January 2024: Boeing production was capped at 38 aircraft per month. Boeing is currently producing about 32 aircraft each month.  
  • February 2024: In compliance with the 2020 Aircraft Certification, Safety and Accountability Act, an independent panel of aviation experts tasked with reviewing Boeing’s Organization Designation Authorization (ODA) released a report of findings. The panel identified 27 findings and 53 recommendations.   
  • February 28, 2024: Administrator Whitaker requested an action plan from Boeing for improving safety performance within 90 days.  
  • May 30, 2024: Boeing submitted the 90-day safety improvement plan to the FAA.  

Safety Oversight and Legislation 

While issues at Boeing were the catalyst for the conversation around aviation safety, the root of this hearing was focused on overall safety practices in aviation operations and manufacturing. Chair Cantwell expressed her concerns in opening remarks noting that she could not help but to feel a sense of déjà vu having this safety conversation again, while wondering whether we could truly have a new day in aviation safety. Administrator Whitaker expressed understanding of her sentiments and the need for the FAA to no longer operate as a reactive entity. It was his view that the agency has long been focused on paperwork processes of safety and not nearly hands-on enough with inspections. He noted that the agency plans to increase its number of safety inspectors and rely on an all-hands-on-deck approach, with the long-term goal of having enough data collection, inspection, and audit processes in place that safety issues are seen proactively before an incident occurs.  

In pursuit of FAA goals, different pieces of legislation have supported the increase in oversight. Committee ranking minority member Ted Cruz (R-TX) noted that the recently signed FAA Reauthorization Act of 2024 directs the FAA to conduct risk-based inspections of manufacturers like Boeing, increases protections for whistleblowers, and provides the FAA with tools for further developing a workforce with the necessary technological knowledge to conduct effective oversight. Senator Cantwell emphasized the workforce support in noting that the reauthorizing legislation authorizes $66.7 billion over five years to help boost the FAA’s workforce. 

Additionally, on the oversight front, Senator Cantwell flagged the importance of the Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act of 2010 in strengthening safety practices in aviation manufacturing. This legislation, drafted in the aftermath of the last major U.S. commercial airline disaster (Colgan Air) in 2009, required the FAA to issue a final rule on the use of a safety management system (SMS) for manufacturers. The FAA’s final rule, issued in April of 2024, requires manufacturers to submit an implementation plan within 6 months and to have a SMS fully implemented within 36 months. Because these programs were largely voluntary previously, Administrator Whitaker noted that this change finally gives the FAA some regulatory teeth to truly monitor the oversight process for the use of these systems.  

Boeing 

For Boeing specifically, per the aviation manufacturer’s report, the 90-day safety plan geared toward improving manufacturing processes and safety will address issues in four main areas: investing in workforce training, simplifying manufacturing plans and processes, eliminating defects, and elevating our safety and quality culture, along with measures to continuously monitor and manage the health of our production system.  

With the maybe uncomfortably close involvement from the FAA, some of the plans for oversight and improvement include the following specific adjustments:  

  • Strengthening of Boeing’s SMS 
  • Simplifying processes and procedures and clarifying work instructions 
  • Enhanced supplier oversight 
  • Enhanced employee training and communication  
  • Increased internal audits of production system  
  • Continual review of progress and effectiveness of changes based on audit findings and panel recommendations  
  • Weekly meetings with senior FAA leaders on established performance metrics and progress
  • Increased inspectors at Boeing and AeroSystems facilities 

The full laundry list can be seen here, but the FAA’s description of the oversight as “aggressive” seems to be an accurate description. 

Labor 

The hearing also highlighted the labor issues that the aviation manufacturing and inspection industries are facing. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many industries, including aviation companies, conducted layoffs or other strategies to respond to the abrupt downturn in demand. This led to some transitioning away from certain industries for more stability and opportunity or the early retirement of some of the more experienced industry professionals. Senator Cruz flagged a statistic claiming that of the more than 30,000 employees represented by one union, roughly half have less than six years of experience.  

Administrator Whitaker confirmed the challenges surrounding labor within the aviation sector stating that he believes this has been a significant contributing factor in the aviation ecosystem. Following the pandemic, some aviation manufacturers opted to bring retired employees back to provide training and work floor oversight for less experienced staff, but Boeing did not operate a similar program.  (Ed. Note: There was a good Wall Street Journal article on this topic this week, entitled “Boeing’s Urgent Mission to Train Thousands of Rookies How to Build an Airplane.”)

Competitiveness  

Regardless of the extensive criticism, (mostly earned) of Boeing by members, the overall goal in the meticulous oversight of the company is to return U.S. aviation to the gold standard in safety. Boeing is critical for U.S. economic and military purposes domestically and globally. While safety is essential, opportunities, particularly in NextGen aviation, are key to the continued competitive positioning, and Boeing’s situation is intertwined with the need of the U.S. to remain a clear global leader in aviation.  

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