FAA Fines Boeing; Too Little & Too Late

To minimize press exposure, while simultaneously asserting one is on top of the issue, is a unique form of bureaucratic art. It has been mastered by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), as evidenced by its latest media minimization effort. Specifically, it issued a press release on December 22nd, giving the appearance of candor with four pages of text, all couched in blandishments, vague assurances and promises of internal audits. The date of issue, just two days before Christmas Eve, coincided with many reporters being on holiday leave, and the avoidance of certain expressions — such as “threats to safety” — assured scant coverage.

From the FAA’s perspective, the timing was perfect. The subject of the press release was relegated to a brief mention in the financial pages, if that. It was not covered by the network news, with Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx having to sit under the sweat-inducing klieg lights and answer probing questions.

The press release was titled “Boeing Agrees to Pay $12 Million and Enhance its Compliance Systems to Settle Enforcement Cases”. (See www.faa.gov/news/

press_releases/news_story.cfm?newsId=19875) Whose “compliance systems” and “enforcement cases” are under discussion? Why, the FAA’s, of course. Boeing, it seems, had been blithely derelict for years, so the FAA wrapped up all $38 million in proposed penalties, and settled with Boeing Commercial Airplanes at approximately 31 cents on the dollar in exchange for Boeing’s fervent promises to do better in the future.

Press accounts described the deal as the “second highest enforcement settlement” achieved by the FAA, suggesting the agency has suddenly found its manhood and is truly acting as a regulator.

Look just a little deeper, though, and it’s business-as-usual for the FAA: take no action for years in the face of egregious behavior, propose paltry monetary penalties, then negotiate with the perpetrator to reduce those penalties to a minor fraction.

Of course, Boeing said in a statement that the $12 million penalty “fairly” addresses the matter. Given the sheer number of deficiencies cited in the FAA’s press release, the penalty goes beyond “fair” and into the realm of “token”.

Among the issues covered by this settlement was fuel tank safety. Boeing was required by the FAA to develop instructions for installing systems to reduce the likelihood of fuel tanks exploding. Remember, the FAA’s settlement announcement was in December 2015.

This issue goes back almost 20 years to July 17, 1996, when electrical arcing caused the center in-fuselage fuel tank on TWA Flight 800 to blow up shortly after the B747 departed New York City’s JFK Airport with 230 passengers and crew aboard. The force of the explosion blew the nose section — including the cockpit — off the airplane. The B747 struck the water in two sections, killing everybody on board.

A center fuel tank explosion destroyed TWA Flight 800

A center fuel tank explosion destroyed TWA Flight 800

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigated and determined that errant electrical energy found its way into the fuel measuring circuit in the center tank. The tiny spark in the dark confines of the tank was sufficient to ignite fuel-air vapors.

The NTSB concluded that all airliner fuel tanks needed to be protected with an on-board inerting system. In other words, flood the empty space in the fuel tank with an inert gas to preclude the possibility of explosion.

The NTSB recommendation was contained in its final investigative report on the TWA Flight 800 accident, issued in August 2000. Additionally, the NTSB said:

“Pending implementation of design modifications, require modifications in operational procedures to reduce the potential for explosive fuel/air mixtures in the fuel tanks of transport-category aircraft.” (Recommendation A-96-175, p. 310 of final report at www.ntsb.gov/investigations/AccidentReports/Reports/AAR0003.pdf)

It was not until 2008 that the FAA published regulations that required manufacturers to develop design changes and service instructions to reduce fuel tank explosiveness. The FAA was culpable of gross regulatory delay, and then compounded the tardiness by granting the manufacturers until 2010 to submit their implementation plans. It is not evident that recommendation A-96-175 has ever been issued to the airlines; none of them has modified procedures.

Boeing did not submit its plans to the FAA for inerting fuel tanks in the existing fleet or for modifying fueling procedures until 2011, more than 300 days after the deadline for submission to the FAA. Eleven years elapsed before plans were developed, not equipment and procedures modified. Someone at FAA headquarters should have been monitoring progress on a monthly basis; reports of progress, and lack thereof, should have been sent up the chain of command. Industry action should have been spurred; it obviously was not done.

The FAA should join Boeing in the docket for benign regulatory neglect and utter passivity given the threat of another fuel tank explosion right under the passengers’ seats.

Another major problem involved fasteners used to rivet together sections of Boeing’s 777 long-range jet. Boeing received a shipment of fasteners that did not conform to required specifications.  The incorrect fasteners were used until 2010, even though the discovery of out-of-conformance parts was made in 2008. It is not clear if airplanes that left the factory with the incorrect parts were ever returned for correction and replacement, or if in-service inspections of these aircraft were mandated to assure that no long-term structural durability problems were being missed.

Quality control problems in the manufacturing of new Boeing airplanes

Quality control problems in the manufacturing of new Boeing airplanes

As in the case of fuel-tank issues, the FAA seems grossly derelict in assuring the structural integrity of B777 airliners. Some questions come to mind, such as:

  • How long had Boeing been receiving bad fasteners? The bad shipments were not discovered until 2008, but does the FAA know when the first shipment of bad parts was received?
  • How many airplanes were affected by the installation of out-of-conformance parts?
  • What testing on samples was done to assess degradation of durability?
  • These are questions to which answers are sought. Unfortunately, they are nowhere to be found in the FAA’s December 22nd press release. It is apparent, however, from the matters it does discuss — generically — that Boeing’s manufacturing process was shot through with poor management, absent quality control, and inadequate “process specifications” (15 in all) to ensure that aircraft production and supervision of same was of the highest order.

    For all of these shortcomings, evasions and late compliance, Boeing negotiated a $12 million penalty to be paid the FAA. To put this puny penalty into perspective, Boeing in 2014 reaped approximately $5.45 billion in profit. The fine represents a miniscule .002% of the mighty Boeing’s profits. Ten times the $12 million penalty seems to at least be in the realm of appropriate, given the magnitude of the lassitude and outright incompetence suggested by the FAA’s press release.

    Not even mentioned is the possibility of shutting down the production line until all deficiencies are corrected. The mere threat of such action from the regulator would bring massive media attention to the problem. Congress might even be energized to query the FAA on its suddenly proactive stance (causing some soporific Congressmen to jolt awake). The Administration might be forced to implement changes at the Transportation Department which would bring a halt to “feel-good” press releases that don’t increase the safety of the flying public. Indeed, the press release appears to preserve the jobs of those officials on whose watch the violations occurred, and to which they are fully and belatedly culpable.