WASHINGTON – The United States’ Federal Aviation Administration on Jan 24 said that airlines could begin returning grounded Boeing 737 Max 9 planes to service once they undergo a thorough inspection and maintenance process after the agency halted flights on Jan 6 following a mid-air emergency.

Separately, the FAA said it will not grant any production expansion of the Max, including the 737-9 Max.

“We will not agree to any request from Boeing for an expansion in production or approve additional production lines for the 737 Max until we are satisfied that the quality control issues uncovered during this process are resolved,” FAA Administrator Mike Whitaker said in a statement.

On the same day, US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said the Biden administration will undertake a wide-ranging review of oversight and quality control at Boeing after the plane maker’s latest missteps.

The FAA is examining specific manufacturing concerns related to Boeing’s 737 Max 9 aircraft after an incident involving a fuselage section that ripped away from an Alaska Airlines plane in midflight, “but also a bigger picture examination of any and all quality issues,” Mr Buttigieg said.

“I think that’s going to include a structural discussion about how best to conduct this kind of oversight and going forward,” he continued.

The comments signal that Boeing faces long-lasting repercussions from the blow-out of a door plug minutes after the Alaska Airlines jet took off from Portland on Jan 5. Federal regulators have launched far-reaching investigation of Boeing’s control over quality in its factories and supply chain after early clues and a whistleblower’s allegations point to a manufacturing error within the plane maker’s Renton, Washington plant.

Mr Buttigieg spoke to reporters a day after Mr Whitaker said his agency was evaluating whether there were systemic issues at Boeing. A broader inquiry could further pressure the aviation giant, which has faced intensified scrutiny since a pair of fatal crashes to the Max lines in 2018 and 2019.

Mr Buttigieg added that “right now everything is on the table” to make sure that the design and manufacturing of Boeing aircraft was as strong as it could be.

Earlier on Jan 24, Boeing chief executive David Calhoun said that he believed the current questions around the company’s planes could be resolved in “days and weeks, not months” after meeting lawmakers on Capitol Hill. 

After meeting Mr Calhoun, Senator Maria Cantwell, the Democrat from Washington who heads the Senate Commerce Committee, said she would hold hearings “to investigate the root causes of these safety lapses.”

China delivery a sign of good news

In a rare bit of positive news for Boeing, it delivered its first 737 Max to a Chinese airline since March 2019 on Jan 24, flight data showed, ending an almost five-year freeze on imports of the US plane maker’s most profitable product in a respite for severely strained trade relations between the world’s two largest economies.

The delivery symbolises the re-opening of doors to China, one of the fastest-growing aerospace markets, which the company projects will account for 20 per cent of the world’s aircraft demand through 2042.

It was China that was initially the most aggressive in responding to a pair of fatal crashes in 2018 and 2019 of Max planes that killed nearly 350 people. Regulators in that country grounded the jets before other national regulators, and while safety bans had been lifted with existing Max already flying inside China, new deliveries had remained on hold. REUTERS, BLOOMBERG



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