FAA gives Boeing 90 days to fix serious safety shortcomings found in report

Expert panel finds 'a lack of awareness of safety-related metrics at all levels,' and more, at plane maker

"Inadequate," "confusing," "disconnect," and "lack of awareness" aren't words passengers would like to hear associated with aviation safety, but according to the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that's exactly what the situation is like at Boeing.

The findings come from a report compiled by an expert panel convened in March of 2023 and published Monday that relied on more than 4,000 pages of Boeing documents, multiple surveys, more than 250 employee interviews and visits to six Boeing locations. What it uncovered can only be described as devastatingly serious shortcomings in Boeing's safety culture. 

"The panel observed documentation, survey responses, and employee interviews that did not provide objective evidence of a foundational commitment to safety that matched Boeing's descriptions of that objective," the panel said in its report - and that's probably the least damning thing they conclude.

Employees at Boeing reportedly expressed confusion by different terms and a lack of explicit descriptions that clarify Boeing's various safety topics. To back that up, the panel said it "struggled to identify effective guidance" that translated Boeing's safety management system (SMS), imposed by the FAA in 2020 following multiple fatal 737 crashes, into expectations for each employee's role.

The panel wasn't convened to address any one particular safety issue at Boeing, we note, and didn't cover specific safety incidents - only the general safety culture and compliance at Boeing. 

"The expert panel found a lack of awareness of safety-related metrics at all levels of the organization, and significant skepticism … regarding the lasting power of the SMS implementation," the panel said. 

To make matters worse, safety incident reporting at Boeing appears to be a convoluted mess, too. The panel expressed concern that confusing reporting systems could discourage employees from reporting safety concerns. 

Reporting rules vary between Boeing facilities, the panel found, and in some cases managers that oversee employee performance are also in a position to investigate safety reports. This, the panel said, "could lead to a manager investigating a report within their own reporting chain, potentially compromising Boeing's commitment to a non-retaliatory and impartial environment." 

The report included 27 findings and 53 recommendations.

Boeing, for its part, told The Register that it supported the panel and appreciates its work. 

"We've taken important steps to foster a safety culture that empowers and encourages all employees to share their voice. But there is more work to do," a Boeing spokesperson told us. "We will carefully review the panel's assessment and learn from their findings, as we continue our comprehensive efforts to improve our safety and quality programs."

Boeing also directed us to its safety website to emphasize that it has made a number of safety improvements since 2019 - recent issues notwithstanding. 

The FAA wants a plan in 90 days

Boeing has precious little time to do whatever work it thinks is needed to improve its safety culture. Following an all-day meeting yesterday between FAA and Boeing leadership, FAA administrator Mike Whitaker said the company has 90 days to submit an action plan to the Administration.

"Boeing must commit to real and profound improvements," Whitaker said in a statement today. "Boeing must take a fresh look at every aspect of their quality-control process and ensure that safety is the company's guiding principle." 

The FAA is also currently investigating [PDF] Boeing for safety noncompliance linked to the door plug that popped out of a 737 Max 9 in January, and is also working on an production line audit, results from which will need to be included in Boeing's action plan due in 90 days. 

"Making foundational change will require a sustained effort from Boeing's leadership, and we are going to hold them accountable every step of the way, with mutually understood milestones and expectations," Whitaker said. ®

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