The US aviation regulator has blocked Boeing from expanding production of its most popular plane, citing concerns about the manufacturer’s quality control after a door panel blew out of a 737 Max 9 plane this month.
“Let me be clear: this won’t be back to business as usual for Boeing,” said Michael Whitaker, head of the Federal Aviation Administration. “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.”
The announcement late on Wednesday came weeks after a mid-flight breach of the fuselage on a Boeing 737 Max 9 operated by Alaska Airlines in early January, terrifying passengers and raising questions about the safety of air travel. The FAA ordered the model grounded until extensive inspections and maintenance took place.
The halt to increased Max production will impede Boeing’s plans for the narrow-body jet. The company had previously said it wanted to boost 737 Max production to 38 a month by the end of 2023 and 50 a month by 2025 or 2026. Boeing said it produced 31 of the planes a month in 2022.
Shares of Boeing fell more than 1 per cent in after-hours trading on Wednesday, and they are down 14 per cent since the Alaska Airlines incident. The company is scheduled to report fourth-quarter results at the end of the month.
Boeing is under intense pressure over the incident, which followed the fatal crashes of two 737 Max 8 planes in 2018 and 2019 which killed a combined 346 people. Dave Calhoun, Boeing’s chief executive, met lawmakers in Washington on Wednesday.
US senator Mark Warner said he had seen “a different approach to transparency” from Boeing’s current leadership than from Calhoun’s predecessors as they responded to 737 Max crashes.
“The Boeing of the past, that hid the ball after the Max disaster, it’s got to be made clear that every person in leadership then is no longer with the company,” said Warner, whose state of Virginia is home to Boeing’s headquarters.
The Senate transport committee said it would hold hearings to investigate “the root causes” of Boeing’s safety lapses.
“The American flying public and Boeing line workers deserve a culture of leadership at Boeing that puts safety ahead of profits,” said Maria Cantwell, a senator from Washington state.
The FAA had already announced it would expand oversight of Boeing’s production and that it would audit its suppliers as well. Spirit AeroSystems, one of Boeing’s main suppliers, built the door panel that blew out of the Alaska plane.
On Wednesday, the FAA also said it had approved a process for inspections and maintenance to be conducted on each of the 171 Boeing 737 Max 9 aircraft that are grounded before they can be returned to service.
Boeing said: “We will continue to co-operate fully and transparently with the FAA and follow their direction as we take action to strengthen safety and quality . . . We will also work closely with our airline customers as they complete the required inspection procedures to safely return their 737-9 airplanes to service.”
The incident and resulting groundings have frustrated some of Boeing’s largest customers, with United Airlines chief executive Scott Kirby this week saying he was he was rethinking a big order for new planes. United said after the FAA’s announcement that it was preparing its aircraft to return to scheduled service on Sunday.
Additional reporting by Steff Chávez in Chicago