Boeing starts final assembly of the first 737 MAX, 2015.

FAA Tightening Control of Aerospace Manufacturing

Feb. 12, 2024
The head of the U.S. agency charged with oversight of the civil aerospace sector describes a data-focused program, but with “a surveillance component, … where inspectors are actually on the ground, talking to people, looking at the work that’s being done.”

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration is preparing to institute a new oversight of the civil aviation sector, focusing particularly on the manufacturing process. In testimony to the U.S. House aviation subcommittee recently, FAA Administrator Michael Whitaker described the shift from an audit-based oversight to one that emphasizes inspections.

“With manufacturing, there has been an oversight approach that has focused heavily on audits, checking the paperwork to make sure it’s correct and making sure that systems are in place,” Whitaker explained to the committee. “We are migrating to a system that is what I would call ‘audit plus.’ We’re going to have more of a surveillance component, … where inspectors are actually on the ground, talking to people, looking at the work that’s being done. So we’re proposing at this point to expand the oversight approach to include both audit and inspection, which is why we’re moving inspectors into facilities.”

FAA currently has dozens of inspectors on site at Boeing’s 737 MAX assembly plant in Renton, Wash., and Spirit AeroSystems’ fuselage assembly plant in Wichita, Kan. Spirit AeroSystems supplies fuselage structures to Boeing and other OEMs, including the 737 MAX 9 that endured a mid-flight failure of its mid-cabin exit door. That Alaska Airlines jet landed safely on January 5, but the incident triggered a grounding of all 737 MAX 9 aircraft, and an ongoing investigation into the manufacturing program.

Whitaker is expected to be on site in Renton this week to meet with Boeing officials.

FAA is effectively in charge of 737 MAX production at this time, though that arrangement will not continue indefinitely. “The duration of the enhanced oversight will depend on results of the review of data and metrics, determination of the root cause of the Jan. 5 door-plug incident and implementing appropriate corrective actions and other mitigations,” according to an agency statement. “It will continue until the FAA is confident that the quality system is producing safe and conforming airplanes.”

Boeing has deferred to FAA since the January 5 incident, even acknowledging it will not seek to increase 737 MAX production rates – an ongoing objective – until FAA has lifted its restriction.

“Audit plus” would continue to incorporate formal audits of aircraft production programs and documentation, according to FAA deputy associate administrator for Aviation Safety Jodi Baker, at the same Congressional hearing. In addition, it will integrate data from on-site surveillance, from apparently random visits to manufacturing sites.

“It would be more informal. We wouldn’t necessarily have to provide notice,” Baker continued. “One advantage of this is we get a better sense of safety culture because we can actually talk to employees and figure out what’s motivating them. What are they concerned about? That allows us to get a better sense of the safety culture at the employee level.

“We want more interaction and more direct observation of the work that’s being accomplished,” according to the deputy administrator.

The new audit-plus effort is not focused solely on Boeing, but broadly on all aircraft builders, their supplier networks, and their customers. Data to inform the program would be collected from throughout the civil aviation supply chain, down to the commercial carriers according to Whitaker’s statement on meeting with officials of eight major airlines.

“As I mentioned in my testimony (on February 6), data is crucial to identifying and mitigating significant risks and emerging safety trends, allowing us to move toward a more predictive system,” he stated. “Today we discussed the need for more access to real-time data and better tools to detect and manage risk within our aviation system."

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