An aerial photo shows Jet Airways and 9 Air Boeing 737 MAX airplanes, as well as a 737 MAX 7, grounded at Boeing Field in Seattle, Washington, U.S. March 21, 2019.
File photo: An aerial photo shows Jet Airways and 9 Air Boeing 737 MAX airplanes, as well as a 737 MAX 7, grounded at Boeing Field in Seattle, Washington, U.S. March 21, 2019. Image Credit: Reuters

Boeing Co. will step up inspections of aircraft during production and open its factories to airline customers as it seeks to improve quality and bolster confidence in its 737 Max following a near-disaster on an Alaska Airlines flight earlier this month.

A Boeing team has been sent to its biggest supplier, Spirit AeroSystems Holdings Inc., to inspect and approve mid-exit door plugs before the fuselage section is shipped to the planemaker, commercial aircraft chief Stan Deal said in a letter to employees on Monday.

Boeing will also bring in an outside party to review its quality controls and suggest improvements, he said, adding another layer of scrutiny to its manufacturing process.

Boeing mid-air incident

“Everything we do must conform to the requirements in our quality management system. Anything less is unacceptable,” Deal said. “Let each one of us take personal accountability and recommit ourselves to this important work.”

The planemaker was thrown into crisis on Jan. 5, when a door-sized fuselage panel tore off of a 737 Max 9 on Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 midflight. While the aircraft landed safely, the Federal Aviation Administration has grounded most of the single-aisle variant as it investigates the accident.

The FAA has reacted quickly to increase oversight of Boeing, after being criticized for acting too slowly in response to two deadly 737 Max crashes nearly five years ago that cost 346 lives.

The agency last week initiated a probe of Boeing manufacturing, said it will increase monitoring of so-called “in-service events” on the Max 9, and plans to audit Boeing’s production line as well as those of its suppliers.

Many Layers

Monday’s actions by Boeing are separate from the FAA’s investigation and oversight plans, Deal said. “We will cooperate fully and transparently with both as we work to restore trust with our regulator and our customers,” he said.

Spirit, a former Boeing unit, makes about 70% of the 737’s frameset at its base in Wichita, Kansas, including the so-called plug on the Max 9 fuselage. The units are then shipped by rail to Boeing’s factory in Renton, Washington.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the root cause of the accident. It has said that four locking bolts that secure the plug door to the frame are missing, and it’s not clear whether they were ever installed.

The door plug that ejected has been recovered and is currently undergoing inspection at an NTSB site.

In addition to the door plugs, Boeing is also inspecting more than 50 other points in Spirit’s manufacturing process and assessing the contractor’s build plans against engineering specifications, Deal said.

Spirit has been plagued by quality issues, including a glitch with misdrilled holes that caused a slowdown in 737 Max deliveries last year, and has been under financial stress. Boeing reworked some contracts with Spirit last year and provided additional financial aid to support its partner.

Airline Scrutiny

The stakes are high for Boeing to repair the reputation of its cash-cow 737 Max. Airlines in China have delayed resuming 737 deliveries after missing and loose bolts were found in December, Bloomberg reported earlier.

The move to open Boeing’s factories to aircraft operators follows Alaska Air Group Inc.’s decision expand quality checks on production of planes. The US carrier, which relies on Boeing 737 aircraft, said over the weekend that it will hire more staff to enhance oversight of the planemaker’s production line.

Spirit will also open its factories to operators, Deal said, “and we will learn from our customers’ insights and findings.”