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FAA says Boeing's grounded 737 Max 9 jets can fly again after thorough inspection

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

The Federal Aviation Administration says grounded Boeing 737 Max 9 jets can fly once again.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

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More than 170 planes have been grounded since a door plug flew off an Alaska Airlines flight in midair nearly three weeks ago. Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun was on Capitol Hill yesterday trying to reassure lawmakers and the flying public.

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DAVE CALHOUN: We fly safe planes. We don't put airplanes in the air that we don't have 100% confidence in.

MARTIN: But questions are mounting about quality control at Boeing's factories.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR transportation correspondent Joel Rose has been following all this. So, Joel, so why did the FAA give it the all-clear?

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JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Well, the FAA laid out what it calls a thorough inspection and maintenance plan these jets will have to go through before they're certified to fly again. And this has taken several weeks because the FAA says it needed to gather information from airlines and Boeing to ensure that the planes are safe to fly.

But FAA administrator Mike Whitaker also said this is not just back to business as usual for Boeing. The agency is imposing pretty sweeping production caps on the company's factories - not just the Max 9, but other 737 lines as well. That's a rare step by the government, and the FAA regulators say they want to be satisfied that, quote, "quality control issues uncovered during this process," unquote, get fixed before those caps are lifted.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. And investigators have been trying to figure out why the door panel blew out midair in the first place. So has there been any clue as to why that happened?

ROSE: Well, nothing new from the FAA or from other federal investigators, but we did get some very interesting insight from an apparent whistleblower, a self-described Boeing employee who appears to have access to a lot of company records. The whistleblower claims to have new details about that door plug panel that blew off the Alaska Airlines jet.

This person alleges that four bolts that are supposed to hold the door plug in place were removed for some repair work at Boeing's factory in Renton, Wash. The bolts should have then been replaced but, according to this person, were not reinstalled before the plane left the factory. This person laid all of this out in a detailed post on an aviation website last week. It was first reported yesterday by The Seattle Times. The whistleblower says safety inspection processes at that Boeing factory are, quote, "a rambling, shambling disaster waiting to happen."

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MARTÍNEZ: So what has Boeing said in response?

ROSE: Boeing has declined to comment, citing ongoing investigations, and referred questions to the National Transportation Safety Board. It's interesting to note the NTSB has already raised the possibility that the bolts were not there.

I should say NPR has not been able to verify the identity of this apparent whistleblower, but their explanation does seem credible to Ed Pierson. He is a former senior manager at Boeing's 737 factory. He's now the director of the Foundation for Aviation Safety.

ED PIERSON: This is symptomatic of what happens when you rush production and people are put under this kind of pressure. People take shortcuts, and that's where these mistakes are made. And it doesn't surprise me because this is the kind of stuff that we had seen - I had seen in the past.

ROSE: Today, Boeing's factory teams in Renton are scheduled to have what the company is calling a quality stand down, basically allowing production to pause for a day so that employees can take part in special training sessions.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, Joel, a couple weeks ago, I had a flight canceled back home to LA because it was a Max 9 plane. And a lot of flights have been canceled because of that. So how soon could Max 9 planes be back in the air?

ROSE: You know, it could happen relatively quickly. The inspections themselves are not expected to take that long. United Airlines says some of its Max 9 planes could start flying again on Sunday. Alaska Airlines says that a few could be flying as soon as tomorrow. Whether the public is ready to start flying on these planes, that is another question. The answer could be coming sooner, rather than later.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. That's NPR transportation correspondent Joel Rose. Joel, thanks.

ROSE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Joel Rose
Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.