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‘Inadequate and confusing’ safety processes flagged at Boeing

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A panel of experts has identified “inadequate and confusing” safety processes at Boeing and a “disconnect” between senior managers and the rank and file in a report that raises new questions about operations at the US aircraft manufacturer after a door panel blew out of one of its planes last month.

The 50-page report was commissioned long before the incident on an Alaska Airlines 737 Max jetliner in January. It scrutinises safety culture, safety management systems and a federal programme, known as Organization Designation Authorization, which allows federal aviation regulators to assign the authority to inspect planes to Boeing employees.

The Federal Aviation Administration said it will would review the report as it conducts an audit of Boeing after the door-panel incident. A preliminary probe by the National Transportation Safety Board found four bolts were missing from the door opening when the Alaska Airlines plane left a Boeing factory last year.

The report published on Monday pointed to an array of issues about the inspection programme. The experts found that “many Boeing employees did not demonstrate knowledge of Boeing’s enterprise-wide safety culture efforts, nor its purpose and procedures”.

The report said that procedures and training at Boeing “are complex and in a constant state of change, especially among different work sites and employee groups”.

While the company has “initiated efforts and established programmes”, the report said, “the findings and recommendations indicate gaps in Boeing’s safety journey”.

The expert panel, which consisted of managers from Boeing and airlines, union representatives and academics, said it reviewed 4,000 pages of Boeing documentation and interviewed 250 employees, and their report includes 27 findings and 53 recommendations.

Boeing said it had taken steps to foster a safety culture that “encourages all employees to share their voice. But there is more work to do. We will carefully review the panel’s assessment and learn from their findings.”

In 2020, US Congress enacted legislation calling for, among other directives, the expert panel to study the ODA programme after two Boeing 737 Max aircraft crashed in 2018 and 2019, killing 346 people in total.

About 1,000 Boeing employees are assigned to the programme. In 2020, the FAA fined Boeing $1.25mn for harassing and threatening these in-house inspectors.

Boeing restructured the programme to reduce opportunities for participants to suffer from interference or retaliation for flagging safety problems. But the restructured programme, “while better”, still does not wholly shield employees from retaliation, the expert panel’s report said, particularly regarding salary and furloughs.

The FAA has said the separately conducted audit of Boeing’s manufacturing and quality processes that it initiated after the Alaska Airlines incident could determine to what degree it would continue to authorise Boeing employees to perform inspections.

“We will continue to hold Boeing to the highest standard of safety and will work to ensure the company comprehensively addresses these [report] recommendations,” the FAA said.

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