The Federal Aviation Administration said Friday it is expanding its control over Boeing and tightening oversight of the company with an audit of production of the 737 Max 9, a week after a panel in the fuselage of one of those planes exploded in flight.
The audit assesses whether Boeing and its suppliers have followed approved quality control practices. The agency also said it would take a closer look at the problems with the Max 9 and examine safety risks associated with the agency's practice of outsourcing some oversight to authorized Boeing employees, a move raised by some lawmakers and safety experts after two crashes 737 Max 8 aircraft were criticized, killing 346 people.
“It is time to review the transfer of authority and assess any associated security risks,” the agency’s administrator, Mike Whitaker, said in a statement. “The grounding of the 737-9 and the numerous production-related issues identified in recent years require us to explore all options to reduce risk.”
There were no serious injuries in last week's accident, but the incident could have been far more catastrophic had it occurred at cruising altitude; The panel exploded while the plane was at 16,000 feet and still climbing. Investigators are focusing on what caused the panel, a plug for an unused exit door, to suddenly rip out of the plane.
The FAA has for years outsourced some of the oversight of aircraft and aircraft parts certification to company employees. After a lengthy investigation into the design, development and certification of the Max, House Democrats criticized the practice, saying the agency had outsourced too much responsibility to Boeing employees who may not have sufficient independence.
Some aviation experts say the practice is necessary given the FAA's limited resources and a change would require Congress to give the agency more money and authority to hire more professionals. Outsourcing oversight is widespread among regulators, but a 2022 Government Accountability Office report found that the FAA does not scrutinize the practice as closely as the European Union Aviation Safety Agency. This year, the agency said it had strengthened oversight of the practice by better protecting the company's deputy employees from interference.
In his statement Friday, Mr. Whitaker, who recently became FAA administrator, said he would be willing to take another look at the program. He also said the agency is exploring using an independent third party to oversee Boeing's inspections and quality system.
On Thursday, the FAA announced an investigation into whether Boeing failed to ensure the plane met standards and was safe to operate.