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FAA chief admits agency ‘too hands-off’ in oversight of Boeing

Washington D.C. — Federal Aviation Administration chief Mike Whitaker said his agency is partly responsible for the safety problems at Boeing, admitting that it was “too hands off” in its oversight of the troubled aircraft manufacturer.

In testimony Thursday before the Senate Commerce Committee, Whitaker said that his agency now had far more inspectors on the ground at Boeing factories and the factory of its primary supplier, Spirit AeroSystems. He said it will continue to push Boeing to improve its safety culture in the wake of the January 5 incident in which door plug blew off during an Alaksa Airlines flight, leaving a gaping hole in the side of the Boeing 737 Max.

But he also said that the FAA was not blameless in that incident.

“Let me also acknowledge the FAA should have had much better visibility into what was happening at Boeing before January 5,” he said in his opening remarks to the committee.

“The FAA’s approach was too hands off, too focused on paperwork audits and not focused enough on inspections. We have changed that approach over the last several months. And those changes are permanent,” he said. “We have now moved to a more active, comprehensive oversight model - the audit plus inspection approach.”

Whitaker, who was confirmed to his job heading the nation’s primary aviation regulator in October, said he will be visiting Boeing’s South Carolina factory himself tomorrow, and its plant that makes the 737 Max in Renton, Washington in September.

Whitaker said that the FAA previously had 24 inspectors at Boeing and Spirit and that the number was in the low 30s now. Its target is 55 inspectors, although he did not give a date for when that would be in place. And he said that number could change over time.

“We can no longer afford to remain reactive,” he said.

A preliminary report by the National Transportation Safety Board has found that bolts necessary to keep the door plug on the Alaska Air plane in place were missing from the plane at the time it left the Boeing factory in Washington roughly two months before the flight. Under questions at Thursday’s hearing, Whitaker said the FAA did not have any inspectors in the factories at that time when the piece was put in.

Instead the FAA staff was focused on paperwork audits instead of actual inspections.

“We clearly did not have enough folks to see what was going on in that factory,” he said.

But Whitaker said that Boeing needs to make changes as well to improve the safety of its planes.

“There must be a fundamental shift in the company’s safety culture in order to holistically address its quality and safety challenges,” he said. “This is about systemic change and there’s a lot of work to be done.”

He said there has been a shift in tone in discussions between the FAA and Boeing executives since the January incident.

“My focus has been on making it clear this is a very long-term journey. You don’t change the culture of an organization. We’ve seen an increasing recognition that this is a long journey ahead.”

Copyright CNN

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