FAA Expands Boeing 737 Investigation to Manufacturing and Production Lines

Investigator-in-Charge John Lovell examines the fuselage plug area of Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 Boeing 737-9 MAX. (Image: NTSB)

The Federal Aviation Administration is expanding its investigation into what caused the recent Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 incident to Boeing's manufacturing practices and production lines. According to a statement recently released by the agency, the expanded investigation will include subcontractor Spirit AeroSystems, which makes the fuselage for the Boeing 737 MAX and other aircraft models.

Expansion of the investigation to Boeing's manufacturing practices comes after the FAA grounded 171 in-service Boeing 737 MAX 9s. The grounding was the result of the in-flight loss of a mid-cabin door plug on a 737-9 operated by Alaska as flight 1282.

The FAA's investigation into Boeing's manufacturing practices are the latest manufacturing-related scrutiny that the airplane maker has experienced. In July 2021 for example, Boeing temporarily lowered the production rate of its 787 model and stopped delivering the aircraft for 14 months due to small gaps identified in the forward pressure bulkhead. Deliveries then resumed in August 2022, but had to be paused again in February 2023 because of an analysis error that was discovered related to the same pressure bulkhead component.

During a Jan. 12 interview with CNBC, FAA Administrator Michael Whitaker acknowledged the past issues and said the agency believes Boeing may have other manufacturing issues as well.

"We know there are problems with manufacturing, there have been problems in the past. But these are continuing and the aircraft was three months old," Whitaker said, commenting on the 737 involved in the Flight 1282 incident. "We believe there are other manufacturing problems as well."

The aviation regulator has also issued a Safety Alert for Operators (SAFO) that recommends operators of the Boeing 737-900ER — a different model than what was involved in the flight 1282 incident — perform inspections on the mid-cabin door plugs featured on that aircraft because it has an identical design to the plug that became detached from the Alaska Airlines aircraft mid-flight. According to the SAFO, some operators that have already conducted additional inspections on in-service 737-900ERs have noted "findings with bolts during maintenance inspections."

Boeing's latest action following the flight 1282 incident includes the appointment of a new team of independent special advisors tasked with assessing quality programs and practices in Boeing manufacturing facilities and its oversight of commercial supplier quality. The team of outside experts will be led by Admiral Kirkland H. Donald, U.S. Navy (Ret.).

"Admiral Donald is a recognized leader in ensuring the integrity of some of the most complex and consequential safety and quality systems in the world," Boeing President and CEO Dave Calhoun said in a statement. "I've asked him to provide an independent and comprehensive assessment with actionable recommendations for strengthening our oversight of quality in our own factories and throughout our extended commercial airplane production system."