Cantwell Grills FAA Head: ‘What Can You Do to Change [Boeing’s] Culture?’

FAA Administrator Whitaker reveals he’s aiming to nearly double the number of safety inspectors at Boeing & Spirit; Cantwell pushes Whitaker to detail how his agency will improve lagging safety practices in aviation industry and coordinate with frontline workers; Sen. Cantwell: “We want to know that the workforce is being listened to and that they are backed up. When you have enough FAA oversight and they are there and communicating and double checking that, it’s a reinforcement”

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, pressed Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Administrator Michael Whitaker on how he plans to strengthen the agency’s safety oversight at Boeing and other aviation manufacturers, after a series of accidents and failed audits.

What is the FAA doing to strengthen its oversight of the planes that we fly on every day and to make sure that they are safely built? We need to know what change under your watch, Administrator Whitaker, will restore the proper oversight to manufacturing to achieve the excellence that we want to see at Boeing and other manufacturers, and ensure the FAA is setting the gold standard for safety oversight,” Sen. Cantwell said in her opening statement of the committee hearing.

“I am struck by a sense of, is this deja vu?” Sen. Cantwell continued. “In 2022 and 2023, as part of individualized FAA conducted audits of Boeing and Spirit AeroSystems, production lines required Boeing to correct any identified problems. Yet, your new special audit still found problems.  It begs the question about the audit process itself at the FAA […] The question is, what can you do to change this culture? “

During the Q&A portion, Sen. Cantwell went on to press Administrator Whitaker on the FAA’s plan to increase the number of inspectors who regularly review practices on Boeing and Spirit factory floors.

“A large part of the FAA’s oversight is making sure there are enough safety inspectors,” Sen. Cantwell said. “That’s why, enacted in the recent law, we basically authorized $66.7 billion over five years to help boost the FAA’s workforce and to make sure that we have an increase in the number of aviation safety inspectors. This is to be done across all shifts, obviously, at manufacturing sites. How does the FAA know what the right number of safety inspectors are? How do we use metrics to measure their success?”

“Well, the interaction between what the inspectors are finding and what the staffing needs are is sort of a continuous feedback loop,” Administrator Whitaker responded. “We initially deployed 24 inspectors, I think we are up in the low 30s now to Boeing and Spirit, and our target is 55, so we are continuing to increase, train and increase inspectors to deploy.”

Sen. Cantwell also asked Administrator Whitaker why an FAA safety inspector didn’t catch the improperly installed door plug that resulted in a blowout at 16,000 feet above Portland International Airport last January and stressed the importance of FAA listening and communicating directly with the frontline manufacturing workforce:

Sen. Cantwell: “In this instance of a door plug issue, you would have had a safety inspector from FAA on the ground that would have been monitoring these processes? I just want to get a little granular here about what the inspector is. They would be verifying compliance to the specifications of what someone on production should be doing? They are not doing the production work but are verifying something has been done the way it was supposed to be done and that it meets the requirements of design and certification?”

Administrator Whitaker: “Correct. In the case of the door plug, it would identify as a critical safety component. Inspectors would focus on those more critical aspects of production to make sure those are done properly.”

Sen. Cantwell: “If Boeing is saying we don’t have documentation and we don’t know who removed it, where was the aviation safety inspector?”

Administrator Whitaker: “We wouldn’t have had them on the ground at that point.”

Sen. Cantwell: “Why not?”

Administrator Whitaker: “At that point the agency was focusing on auditing internal quality programs at Boeing.”

Sen. Cantwell: “So, what role did FAA having a lighter touch do to create this kind of system with a lack of safety culture?”

Administrator Whitaker: “I think this has been a long evolution at Boeing. Not having been there, I can speculate. I think it was a long evolution and was exacerbated by workforce challenges of COVID. We clearly didn’t have enough folks on the ground to see what was going on in that factory.”

Sen. Cantwell: “…We want to know that the workforce is being listened to and that they are backed up. And so, when you have enough FAA oversight and they are there and communicating and double checking that, it’s a reinforcement.”

Last month, Sen. Cantwell led the passage of the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2024. The new law includes comprehensive measures to improve aviation safety, including updating the FAA’s safety inspector staffing model and putting more safety inspectors on factory floors, addressing the nation’s shortage of air traffic controllers, deploying new runway technology to prevent close calls, mandating new 25-hour cockpit recording systems to assist in investigations, and enhancing aircraft certification reforms.

The FAA Reauthorization Act builds upon the Aircraft Certification, Safety, and Accountability Act of 2020, spearheaded by Sen. Cantwell in the aftermath of the Boeing 737 Max crashes in 2018 and 2019. The law strengthened the FAA’s direct oversight of aircraft certification, implemented new integrated systems analyses of new and derivative aircraft, required aircraft manufacturers to disclose safety critical technological changes to their aircraft, and implemented new safety reporting requirements and whistleblower protections.

Sen. Cantwell is a longtime proponent of working to strengthen the aviation and aerospace workforce in Washington state and nationwide. In March 2023, she held a hearing focused on strengthening the aviation workforce and highlighting the anticipated shortages in the industry over the next two decades: “We will need 128,000 pilots, 134,000 maintenance technicians and 173,000 crew members in North America alone,” she said.

In April 2024, Sen. Cantwell convened a roundtable at Kent-based aerospace company Blue Origin with stakeholders from across the industry including manufacturers, researchers, and aviation apprenticeship instructors to discuss the Biden Administration’s designation of Spokane as a national hub for aerospace material manufacturing; video of that roundtable is available HERE.

Sen. Cantwell first introduced the Senate FAA Reauthorization bill on June 12, 2023, along with Sens. Cruz, Duckworth, and Moran, and the Committee passed the legislation with bipartisan support on February 8, 2024. The Committee held eight hearings to inform the bill’s drafting, including: Integrating new entrants into the National Airspace System on September 28, 2022, strengthening airline operations and consumer protections following the Southwest and holiday cancellations on February 9, 2023, modernizing the FAA’s NOTAM system following failures on February 15, 2023, overseeing aviation safety and the Aircraft Certification, Safety, and Accountability Act on March 8, 2023, strengthening the aviation workforce on March 16, 2023, enhancing consumer protections and connectivity in air transportation on March 23, 2023, advancing the next generation aviation technologies on March 29, 2023, and addressing close calls to improve aviation safety on November 9, 2023.

Video of today’s hearing is available HERE, audio HERE, and a transcript of Sen. Cantwell’s remarks is HERE.