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FAA Chief admits agency’s previous oversight approach was “too hands off”

Boeing remains under a microscope on Capitol Hill after a midair scare on January 5 when a door panel blew off a Boeing 737 Max 9 airplane during an Alaska Airlines flight.

Month later, Boeing leaders said the company is taking steps to improve safety and production quality.

Thursday on Capitol Hill, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Administrator Michael Whitaker admitted his agency should have been more aware of what was happening at Boeing before that Alaska Airlines incident. The FAA is responsible for oversight of Boeing and other aircraft manufacturers.

“FAA’s approach was too hands off, too focused on paperwork audits and not focused enough on inspections,” said FAA Administrator Whitaker.

During a Senate hearing, both Democrats and Republicans questioned the FAA’s role in passenger safety.

“I’m very concerned that your, your oversight is not strong enough,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D - Washington State.

“What is the FAA doing differently to hold itself accountable for the oversight that the agency is required to conduct?,” asked Sen. Ted Cruz, R - Texas

Administrator Whitaker said the agency was too reactive in the past, now it’s shifting to a more proactive approach.

“We must develop a more dynamic oversight protocol that allows us to anticipate and identify risks before they manifest themselves as events,” said Whitaker.

He says those actions are playing out with the FAA’s enhanced oversight at Boeing.

“We’ll have boots on the ground at their facilities, so we’ll be able to interact with the employees directly and have a sense of what’s going on,” said Whitaker.

The FAA says a key part of Boeing’s new comprehensive plan is implementing a Safety Management System. This includes a system for employees to report safety or quality control issues confidentially and anonymously.

“The reason safety management systems work is because they are a risk analysis tool and it allows you to find risks that may not be obvious and one way you get that is by hearing from your employees who are on the frontlines,” said Whitaker.

Moving forward, lawmakers say they want both the FAA and Boeing to commit to permanent changes.

“The FAA must guarantee that not only are they certifying that an aircraft is safely designed but that the manufacturer is building them to that safe design - clearly that wasn’t always happening at Boeing,” said Sen. Cruz.

“Both Boeing and the FAA need a strong safety management system, not just in name only, one that actually saves lives,” said Sen. Cantwell.

Next Tuesday Boeing’s CEO Dave Calhoun will be on Capitol Hill where he’s expected to face tough questions from Congress.

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