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FAA chief tells House panel he will hold Boeing responsible for 737 Max 9 incidents

By A.L. Lee & Chris Benson
FAA Administrator Michael Whitaker looks on during a House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation hearing at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Tuesday. Photo by Bonnie Cash/UPI
1 of 3 | FAA Administrator Michael Whitaker looks on during a House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation hearing at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Tuesday. Photo by Bonnie Cash/UPI | License Photo

Feb. 6 (UPI) -- The head of the Federal Aviation Administration testified Tuesday before the House Aviation Subcommittee amid an investigation into a series of recent incidents involving Boeing 737 Max 9 planes, vowing to hold the company responsible.

Michael Whitaker said he will use the authority vested in him to hold the Boeing company accountable.

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The hearing marks the first appearance before lawmakers by newly appointed FAA administrator Whitaker, who faced congressional scrutiny just three months ago before he was confirmed by the Senate on Oct. 24.

"The agency's number one priority is safety," Whitaker said in a statement to the congressional committee. The new FAA administrator added that the agency "will consider the full extent of its enforcement authority to ensure the company is held accountable for any non-compliance."

The hearing, led by Chairman Garret Graves, R-La., aimed to address "challenges facing the FAA and the state of American aviation," the committee said in a statement.

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Whitaker's testimony came as delivery of dozens of Boeing 737 planes was delayed Monday after the aircraft manufacturer said it was alerted to a separate issue involving holes that were incorrectly drilled in some Max 9 fuselages.

In late January, the FAA cleared the way for 171 Boeing 737 Max 9 planes to return to service three weeks after a door plug broke free from an Alaska Airlines plane in mid-flight, forcing an emergency landing in Portland, Ore.

No one was seriously injured in the incident.

As a result of the door's failure, all Max 9s were grounded to undergo federal safety inspections, while Boeing announced a "quality stand down" at its Washington factory to get to the bottom of what happened.

Initially, no timetable was given for all the planes to return to service as fleet inspections and maintenance remained ongoing.

At the same time, Whitaker issued a statement announcing a temporary ban on future production requests from Boeing, while emphasizing that a similar incident "must never happen again."

"Let me be clear: This won't be back to business as usual for Boeing," Whitaker said Jan. 24. "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."

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During his confirmation hearing in October, Whitaker vowed to be "ever vigilant" to prevent airline crashes and emphasized "my priority will be the safety of the flying public."

He promised to immediately focus on implementing several airline safety provisions that were established during the Trump administration that would help to eliminate "serious close calls" on passenger planes.

Whitaker, who previously served as FAA deputy administrator from 2013 to 2016, filled the role that had been vacant for 18 months.

After the door plug incident, the FAA said it acted immediately to increase oversight of Boeing's production and manufacturing, including an audit of the Max 9 production line, as well as parts suppliers for the plane.

The sweeping oversight is designed to evaluate Boeing's actual compliance with federally approved quality control procedures, while the FAA considered hiring an independent third party to monitor Boeing's quality controls.

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