FAA probes Boeing 737 MAX production, ex-manager warns of ‘a factory in chaos’

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration said on Wednesday it was investigating production issues at Boeing Co’s 737 MAX factory, raised by an ex-manager who warned that schedule pressure and worker fatigue undermined quality and raised safety risks.

The manager, Ed Pierson, drew a link between faulty Angle of Attack sensors in two recent 737 MAX crashes that killed 346 people and what he called a “chaotic and alarming state” inside Boeing’s factory that undermined quality and safety.

“It is alarming that these sensors failed on multiple flights mere months after the airplanes were manufactured in a factory experiencing frequent wiring problems and functional test issues,” Pierson said at a hearing before U.S. lawmakers.

At the hearing, U.S. FAA chief Steve Dickson confirmed the agency will not approve Boeing Co’s grounded 737 MAX for flight before the end of 2019, citing a series of steps that still must be completed.

Federal officials told Reuters this week that FAA approval is not until January at the earliest, though some U.S. officials think it may not be until at least February.

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Boeing has warned that a significant delay in 737 MAX approval could force it to cut or even halt production of the aircraft, a move that would have repercussions across its global supply chain. Its shares fell 1%.

Lawmakers aggressively questioned Dickson about an internal FAA analysis produced before a second fatal crash that suggested serious risks of crashes over the life of the airplane and questioned why that did not prompt more aggressive action.

“Despite its own calculations, the FAA rolled the dice on the safety of the traveling public and let the 737 MAX continue to fly until Boeing could overhaul its MCAS software,” said Representative Peter DeFazio, who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Once the FAA clears the plane to fly and approves training changes, it will still take U.S. airlines 30 days or more to resume flights.

Dickson said at the hearing Boeing could still face fines for not disclosing problems with the 737 MAX earlier.

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The three U.S. carriers that operate the 737 MAX – Southwest Airlines Co, American Airlines Group Inc and United Airlines Holdings Inc – are scheduling flights without use of the aircraft until early March 2020, nearly a year since the plane was grounded after crashes killed 346 people in Indonesia and Ethiopia.