‘Overstretched’ Regulators Keep Missing The Boeing 737 Max’s Serious Flaws

Alaska Airlines N704AL is seen grounded in a hangar at Portland International Airport on January 9, 2024 in Portland, Oregon.

Photo: Mathieu Lewis-Rolland (Getty Images)

The door plug blow-out on Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 has rightly provoked an intense outburst of public scrutiny regarding the Boeing 737 Max 9. Initial findings have led federal regulators to believe that design and quality control issues at Boeing and its supplier Spirit AeroSystems caused the dramatic incident. But these findings have raised the question: Why was the airliner cleared to fly?

The Federal Aviation Administration temporarily grounded the Boeing 737 Max 9 until the planes are inspected by the airlines and cleared to fly. It’s commonplace for planes to be inspected and cleared to fly by entities that aren’t regulatory bodies. A recent post from Wired postulates that processes that allow the 737 Max 9 into the skies could be the real cause of the present predicament:

In theory, in the US the FAA checks aircraft for their airworthiness, granting them certification to fly safely. Aircraft designs are studied and reviewed on paper, with ground and flight tests taking place on the finished aircraft alongside an evaluation of the required maintenance routine to keep a plane flightworthy.

In practice, these reviews are often delegated to third-party organizations that are designated to grant certification. Planes can fly without the FAA inspecting them first-hand. “You won’t find an FAA inspector in a set of coveralls walking down a production line at Renton,” says Tim Atkinson, a former pilot and aircraft accident investigator and current aviation consultant, referring to Boeing’s Washington state–based 737 factory.

The FAA relies on third parties because it’s already overstretched and needs to focus on safety-critical new technologies that push forward the latest innovations in flight. “It can’t [check all aircraft itself], because you’re producing 30 to 60 aircrafts a month, and there are 4 million parts in an aircraft,” says [Bjorn] Fehrm.

While no one was seriously injured by the Boeing 737 Max 9’s door plug blow-out, the specter of the Boeing 737 Max 8 looms large over the current debacle. The airliner was involved in two deadly crashes in 2018 and 2019 that killed 346 people. The FAA grounded the Boeing model for 18 months as investigators delved into the planemaker’s handling of the Max 8’s new MCAS computerized flight stabilizer.

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