“In reviewing FAA orders on how FAA conducts the oversight processes, it appears that there may be ways for manufacturers to avoid audit accountability,” Commerce Chair writes
Following the recent Alaska Airlines flight 1282 incident, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Chair of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, today wrote to Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Administrator Michael Whitaker requesting documents and information related to FAA’s safety oversight of Boeing and Spirit AeroSystems to ensure manufacturers cannot avoid audit accountability and are complying with FAA quality control regulations.
“Recent accidents and incidents—including the expelled door plug on Alaska Airlines flight 1282—call into question Boeing’s quality control,” Senator Cantwell wrote. “In short, it appears that FAA’s oversight processes have not been effective in ensuring that Boeing produces airplanes that are in condition for safe operation, as required by law and by FAA regulations. In reviewing FAA orders on how oversight processes are to be conducted, it appears that there may be ways for manufacturers to avoid audit accountability.”
The senator asked the FAA to provide the Committee documentation of its safety audits of Boeing and Spirit AeroSystems over the last two years. She also requested copies of any follow-up reports, letters of investigation or other documents provided to Boeing or Spirit AeroSystems, and requested answers to series of questions regarding FAA’s oversight of manufacturers’ quality control processes.
In her letter, the Chair referred to a request she made in January 2023 that the FAA initiate a Special Technical Audit of 11 areas related to Boeing’s production systems. In April 2023, former Acting Administrator Billy Nolen responded, stating that the Agency had already implemented tools to complete audits of Boeing at regular intervals through its Quality System Audit (QSA) program, which evaluates manufacturers’ production systems to ensure compliance with FAA regulations.
Earlier today, Senator Cantwell commented on the FAA’s announcement that it is launching an investigation into the Boeing 737 MAX 9, saying, “The safety of the flying public is our top priority. We must know what caused the terrifying incident on an Alaska Airlines flight last week and whether manufacturers and FAA oversight failed to meet safety regulations. The American public deserves answers. I am asking the FAA to provide a full accounting of its oversight of manufacturers' compliance with quality control standards.”
Read the full letter from Chair Cantwell here and below.
Chair Cantwell’s letter to FAA Administrator Michael Whitaker:
By letter dated January 26, 2023, I requested that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) initiate a new Special Technical Audit of 11 areas related to Boeing’s production systems. In the Agency’s response dated April 4, 2023, former Acting Administrator Billy Nolen stated that such an audit was not needed because “the agency has [already] implemented tools to complete audits [of Boeing] for the bulk of this information at regular intervals.” FAA’s reply pointed to the Quality System Audit (QSA) program, which evaluates manufacturers’ production systems to ensure compliance with FAA regulations.
Recent accidents and incidents—including the expelled door plug on Alaska Airlines flight 1282—call into question Boeing’s quality control. In short, it appears that FAA’s oversight processes have not been effective in ensuring that Boeing produces airplanes that are in condition for safe operation, as required by law and by FAA regulations.
To help the Committee determine whether FAA’s oversight processes are effective, please provide us with copies of notification letters from the last 24 months for all Quality Systems Audits of Boeing and for all Supplier Control Audits of Spirit AeroSystems. Also, please provide us with copies of any reports relating to these audits and any letters of investigation or other documents provided to Boeing or Spirit AeroSystems following the audits.
Specifically regarding Spirit AeroSystems, please provide the Committee with an explanation of FAA’s oversight of Spirit’s production system and of FAA’s oversight of Boeing’s supplier control system as it relates to Spirit. Please identify what, if any, improvements in oversight by FAA that you intend to implement to ensure that Spirit’s future performance meets all FAA regulatory requirements.
In reviewing FAA orders on how oversight processes are to be conducted, it appears that there may be ways for manufacturers to avoid audit accountability. For example, FAA Order 8120.23A requires that, before performing a Quality System Audit, the Agency must provide 50 days advance notice. This generous notice period clears the way for manufacturers to correct noncompliant conditions prior to the audit, ensuring that non-compliant conditions are rarely if ever detected during an audit. In effect, manufacturers must only get their house in order once an audit is announced.
While the order directs FAA audit teams to determine whether the manufacturer has various documented procedures, it is not clear from the order to what depth the audit teams review manufacturers’ performance to determine whether they comply with their own internal requirements. For example, the order requires auditors to “[p]erform, as necessary, a combination of document and product reviews to determine if the quality system element meets applicable requirements,” leaving the depth of the reviews to the audit team’s discretion. How is the FAA ensuring that documented procedures are being routinely and uniformly followed?
Finally, we are aware that several years ago, Boeing initiated a “Verification Optimization” program that resulted in eliminating thousands of quality inspections on each airplane, relying instead on mechanics self-verifying that they performed their work properly. This resulted in the elimination of 900 quality inspector positions. This program was implemented for several years and would appear to be contrary to FAA’s requirements that production certificate holders have inspection programs that are adequate to ensure that products conform to their type design. Has the FAA verified that Boeing’s inspection program complies with FAA requirements for production certificate holders? If so, please explain how FAA has verified Boeing complied?
We are aware that the FAA has initiated at least two investigations in the past in relation to this Verification Optimization program. Under FAA enforcement policy, recurring violations of this type require legal enforcement action. Please advise of the status of any enforcement actions and outcomes. And please advise the Committee as to whether this program has been rescinded and that an adequate inspection program has been restored.
I request that you provide a written response by January 25, 2024. Thank you for your prompt attention to these important matters.
Sen. Cantwell has a decades-long history in Congress as a leader and staunch advocate for stronger aviation safety reforms. She authored the Aircraft Certification, Safety, and Accountability Act (ACSAA), comprehensive bipartisan, bicameral aviation safety legislation that implemented new aircraft safety and certification reforms in the wake of the Boeing 737 MAX crashes and was signed into law on December 27, 2020. The ACSAA called for aircraft safety and certification reforms, including strengthening FAA direct oversight of aircraft certification, implementing integrated systems analyses of new and derivative aircraft, requiring aircraft manufacturers to disclose technological changes to their products and implementing new safety trend reporting requirements and whistleblower protections. A Cantwell provision in the law required new safety trends reporting so the FAA and Congress can proactively respond to emerging trends impacting safety. Sen. Cantwell led two full Committee hearings on November 3, 2021, and March 8, 2023, to oversee the FAA’s progress in implementing the provisions in ACSAA.
Sen. Cantwell sent a letter in January 2023 to the Department of Transportation Inspector General Eric Soskin asking for an independent review of the FAA’s implementation and compliance with congressional requirements established in the ACSAA. The Committee has used findings associated with this review to inform ongoing oversight to ensure ACSAA’s implementation is in line with congressional intent.
In December 2021, Chair Cantwell released the Aviation Safety Whistleblower Report as part of the Committee’s oversight over the aircraft design and certification of the Boeing 737 MAX, and the implementation of key congressional aviation safety reform mandates. Chair Cantwell wrote a letter to former FAA Administrator Steve Dickson to urge the FAA to review the whistleblower concerns and implement appropriate improvements to aviation safety in response.
Sen. Cantwell has introduced multiple pieces of legislation to codify expert recommendations into law and improve technical expertise to improve aviation safety – many of which have been incorporated into the final text of the ACSAA. In October 2019, she introduced a bill to implement aviation safety recommendations from the NTSB, U.S. Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) that seek to address challenges related to increased automation in commercial aircraft cockpits, as well as how pilots respond to flight deck alerts and uncommanded flight control inputs.
She introduced bipartisan legislation to establish the National Air Grant Fellowship program at the FAA to provide one-year paid aerospace fellowship roles for graduate and post-graduate students in Congress, at the FAA, and other federal agencies to build a pool of talent conversant in emerging technologies for the FAA and to advise Congress to improve aviation safety. She also introduced bipartisan legislation to authorize the FAA to work with other countries to strengthen pilot training standards and enable ICAO to further enhance worldwide aviation safety and training standards.
In June 2023, Senator Cantwell introduced the bipartisan FAA Reauthorization Act that would make critical investments in aviation infrastructure, technology and both the FAA and industry workforces to strengthen aviation safety. Specifically, the bill mandates new 25-hour cockpit recording devices be installed in new aircraft and retrofitted in current aircraft to preserve critical data. The bill also overhauls the aviation inspector staffing model to ensure key safety positions are filled in the technical workforce related to aircraft certification. Leading up to the introduction of the bill, Senator Cantwell held numerous hearings that focused on building the workforce, implementing safety reforms and upgrading the FAA’s NOTAM system. Senator Cantwell led reauthorization legislation for the two previous FAA reauthorization bills for 2012 and 2018, serving then as the chair of the Senate Commerce Committee’s Aviation Subcommittee.