‘We will have more boots on the ground, closely scrutinizing and monitoring production and manufacturing activities.’
The new head of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said the agency is increasing its oversight of Boeing after one of the aircraft manufacturer’s 737 Max 9 jets was forced to make an emergency landing last month.
“Going forward, we will have more boots on the ground, closely scrutinizing and monitoring production and manufacturing activities,” FAA Administrator Michael Whitaker told members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation at a Feb. 6 hearing.
The Jan. 5 emergency occurred when a door plug panel blew off during an Alaska Airlines flight shortly after takeoff.
While most of the grounded planes have since returned to service, the investigation is ongoing.
“We’re undertaking a six-week audit, so we’re in the middle of that now. And that audit will give us guidance on where we need to go,” Mr. Whitaker said.
He added that Boeing will also need to submit a safety culture survey by the end of the month to help the FAA determine how many inspectors will be needed for continued on-site monitoring.
The Alaska Airlines incident was not the first emergency to occur involving Boeing’s 737 Max series. Two separate 737 Max 8 plane crashes in 2018 and 2019 resulted in 346 deaths and the global grounding of the aircraft for nearly two years.
Alluding to those prior tragedies, Mr. Whitaker said that the latest incident had raised two major questions at the FAA: “One, what’s wrong with this airplane; but two, what’s going on with the production at Boeing?”
The FAA went 18 months without a permanent administrator before Mr. Whitaker’s unanimous Senate confirmation in October.
He takes the helm at a tumultuous time for the agency amid air traffic controller staffing shortages and a series of other close calls, including several near-miss incidents in which planes narrowly avoided colliding.
Noting those near-collisions, Rep. Greg Stanton (D-Ariz.) said the bipartisan bill the House passed last July to reauthorize the FAA would provide the agency with the tools it needs to address such issues.
“In this very committee, we crafted a strong, bipartisan, five-year FAA bill and the House passed it nearly unanimously. We did our job and now the Senate needs to do their do theirs as quickly as possible,” Mr. Stanton said.
FAA funding has been extended through March 8 as the House and Senate continue negotiations on a long-term funding solution for the agency.
Dubbed the Securing Growth and Robust Leadership in American Aviation Act, the House bill would authorize funding for airport infrastructure, technological improvements, and hiring additional air traffic controllers.
Stuck in the Senate
Lauded by airlines and a host of industry leaders and organizations, the measure has been idle in the Senate since September. Expressing support for the bill, Mr. Whitaker said its provisions would fund technological advancements that could help prevent future near-miss situations.
“Every airport is different and has its own challenges, but a lot of these surface awareness technologies or tools in the tower can really make a difference and create awareness to avoid these types of mishaps.”
Meanwhile, Subcommittee Chairman Garrett Graves (R-La.) said the bill makes “meaningful reforms” to streamline FAA processes and improve safety across the aviation industry.
“With all the recent incidents, accidents, near misses, and problems, it’s nothing short of malpractice that the Senate hasn’t bothered to even mark up the FAA reauthorization bill,” Mr. Graves said.
“The Senate’s repeated failure has destroyed $650 million in airport investments this year alone and delayed enactment of urgently needed safety measures and reforms.
“There’s never been a worse time to leave the FAA unauthorized, yet that’s where the Senate’s inaction has left us.”
Entreating Mr. Whitaker to help prod the Senate into action, the congressman added, “We stand ready, willing, and able to negotiate the FAA reauthorization bill when the Senate is ready.”
Tom Ozimek, Katabella Roberts, and Reuters contributed to this report.