US FAA chief to face questions on Boeing after MAX 9 emergency

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The head of the US Federal Aviation Administration will tell lawmakers on Tuesday that the agency is stepping up oversight of Boeing in the wake of a 737 MAX 9 mid-air emergency.

"We will have more boots on the ground closely scrutinising and monitoring production and manufacturing activities," according to written testimony from FAA Administrator Mike Whitaker ahead of his appearance at the House Transportation and Infrastructure aviation subcommittee.

The FAA, acting after a cabin panel blew out during flight on a new Alaska Airlines MAX 9, took the unprecedented action of barring Boeing from expanding production of its 737 MAX until it addresses quality issues.

Whitaker declined to put a timeframe on lifting the restriction, saying in an interview with CNBC that the FAA will lift it "when we've got our arms around the situation... and we're convinced that this is a safe production system."

The FAA grounded 171 MAX 9 jets on January 6, resulting in thousands of flight cancellations by Alaska Airlines and United Airlines. The grounding was lifted on January 24 and the agency said on Monday 94 per cent of the jets have returned to service.

Lawmakers on the US House committee last week asked Whitaker to answer whether the agency has found "any evidence of persistent quality control lapses in any of Boeing's production lines".

The FAA, which did not have a permanent administrator for 18 months until Whitaker's 98-0 confirmation, has come under growing scrutiny after a series of potentially catastrophic near-miss aviation safety incidents, persistent air traffic control staffing shortages and a January 2023 pilot messaging database outage that disrupted 11,000 flights.

The agency says it is conducting a six-week audit of all elements of production at Boeing and fuselage production at Spirit AeroSystems and will re-examine the long-standing practice of delegating some critical safety tasks to Boeing.

The FAA said it is sending 20 inspectors to Boeing's 737 facility in Renton and 6 at a Spirit facility in Kansas.

The FAA has scrutinised Boeing's quality and other issues in recent years as it faced harsh criticism for its actions in the run-up to the MAX certification.

In March, the FAA said it had boosted staff providing regulatory oversight of Boeing to 107 from 82 in previous years.

In 2021, Boeing agreed to pay $6.6 million in penalties after failing to comply with a 2015 safety agreement.

Boeing last week said it was withdrawing a safety exemption request for the MAX 7 awaiting certification. Whitaker said Tuesday Boeing "did the right thing to pull back on their requests".

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