Since 2020, airlines have filed more than 1,800 safety concerns over the Boeing 737 Max to federal regulators. Safety advocates assert that understaffed airline regulators have failed to acknowledge or address the problems.

Alaska Airlines N704AL, a 737 Max 9, which made an emergency landing at Portland International Airport on January 5, is parked on the tarmac in Portland, Oregon, on January 23, 2024. (Patrick T. Fallon / AFP via Getty Images)

Over the last three years, operators of Boeing’s troubled 737 Max planes have filed more than 1,800 service difficulty reports — more than one per day — warning government regulators about safety problems with the aircraft since the fleet was allowed to resume flying after two fatal crashes. All but roughly 150 of the reports came from Alaska Airlines — the operator of a 737 Max plane that suffered a midair cabin breach over Portland, Oregon, earlier this month.

Between December 2020 and September 2023, Alaska Airlines filed more than 1,230 reports related to the fifty-three Boeing 737 Max planes it had in its fleet. For comparison, during the same period the airline filed twenty-five reports for its ten Airbus A321 Neo airplanes, the main competitor to Boeing’s 737 Max.

The federal safety reports, compiled by the nonprofit Foundation for Aviation Safety, detail a host of issues with the 737 Max that go far beyond the myriad problems that have plagued Boeing planes in recent weeks. They include fuel leaks on potentially hundreds of planes caused by misapplied sealant, malfunctioning stabilizing motors, debris found in fuel tanks, engine stalls during takeoff, and malfunctioning anti-ice systems, among other issues.

Boeing is currently seeking a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) exemption to use an anti-ice system that can allegedly cause engine failure if left on too long.

Safety advocates assert that understaffed airline regulators have failed to acknowledge or address the problems — all while Boeing has spent millions to curry favor with lawmakers through lobbying and campaign contributions.

Though many of the incidents detailed in the safety reports would not necessarily cause a plane to crash, the totality of the incidents point to serious issues with Boeing’s production process, said Ed Pierson, a former senior Boeing employee and founder of the Foundation for Aviation Safety.

“What we’re talking about is a cumulative effect of multiple emergencies at the same time,” Pierson told us. “These add up, and these are new planes [that] should not be having these problems. There are clearly manufacturing defects because the planes haven’t been operated long enough to do any kind of maintenance on them.”

Representatives for Boeing did not respond to requests for comment.

According to Pierson, officials at the FAA, which regulates US civil aviation, ignored concerns about the safety reports in March 2023. That same month, acting FAA administrator Billy Nolen told the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation he felt confident about the aircraft.

“I can say categorically that the 737 Max airplane is safe,” Nolen said.

These revelations come after we reported on employees allegedly being told to falsify safety records at Spirit AeroSystems, a Boeing subcontractor. We also detailed how Boeing lobbied for weakened safety regulations, how the company showered its executives with hundreds of millions of dollars and spent billions buying back stocks to juice shareholder profits, and how GOP presidential candidate Nikki Haley helped kill an initiative that would have forced Boeing to more fully disclose its political spending.

Some critics blame the FAA, under the direction of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, which they say is plagued by chronic understaffing, weakened oversight capabilities, and reputational damage.

“Not only is the FAA not doing their jobs, Sec. Pete Buttigieg’s office is horribly not doing its job,” Pierson said. “The FAA is required by law and by policy to investigate these incidents, to identify root causes and develop corrective actions. And what we’re seeing is these systems failing repeatedly.”

In a statement to us, the FAA said the safety reports are only one component of how issues are reported, and noted that some airlines may file more reports than what is required. The FAA also said it has not found a growing number of reports filed for 737 Max planes.

“We have seen no evidence of a decrease in airlines’ use of the [service difficulty report] system,” the FAA wrote. “Overall, we are not seeing more [reports] filed for the Max than for other aircraft similar in size, use, and age.”

The FAA added that its safety approach “has resulted in the safest period in aviation history.”

In a statement to us, the Transportation Department said the FAA took immediate action to ground more than 150 Boeing 737 Max planes after the midflight breach earlier this month, vowed to investigate Boeing and its subcontractors, and pledged to reconsider measures that delegated safety evaluations to the airline manufacturers themselves.

“Aggressive action is being taken to get to the bottom of this incident, all options remain on the table to ensure aircraft are safe, and [FAA] Administrator Mike Whitaker has called for a re-examination of the delegation authority that Congress expanded in the 2018 FAA reauthorization bill,” a Transportation Department spokesperson said.

“Soaked With Fuel”

These new revelations are detailed in service difficulty reports, which airlines are required to file with the FAA any time an aircraft that is certified to fly in the US experiences safety issues or system malfunctions. These reports must be submitted within ninety-six hours of an incident, which could include false warning notifications, noxious odors, fuel leaks, engine shutdowns, brake system malfunctions, and other incidents.

The Foundation for Aviation Safety compiled and analyzed all reports that have been filed related to Boeing’s 737 Max aircraft since the planes were allowed to resume flying in November 2020, following an eighteen-month grounding after two 737 Max airplane crashes killed 346 people. The 737 Max line, launched in 2011, was hailed as more fuel efficient than its predecessors, but has been plagued by recurring safety issues for a significant portion of its use.

Between the four US carriers that operate 737 Max planes — Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Southwest Airlines, and United Airlines — the foundation found records of 1,868 total service difficulty reports, 1,708 of which came from Alaska Airlines.

In March 2023, Pierson said he brought his concerns to Billy Nolen, then FAA’s top administrator, and urged him to investigate the reports.

“The response was unsatisfactory,” Pierson said.

According to a subsequent Foundation for Aviation Safety analysis of these Service Difficulty Reports, among the most serious concerns highlighted for Boeing’s 737 Max planes include flight control issues, engine stalls that sometimes happen during takeoff, and issues with motors that help control the aircraft’s altitude.

Additionally, there have been more than eighty reports filed since April 2021 involving the anti-ice system on Boeing’s 737 Max planes. Previously, in 2018, an anti-ice system caused a part of the engine on a 737 plane to snap off and strike a window, resulting in a fatality on a Southwest flight.

Boeing is currently seeking an FAA exemption to use a new anti-ice system on its 737 Max planes, but critics have warned against this, saying that if the system is left on for more than five minutes, engine parts could overheat and snap off.

According to comments submitted to the FAA by the Foundation for Aviation Safety, there is no reminder for the pilot to shut the system off before the recommended time limit.

“I’ve had pilots tell me that it’s kind of like being told to not forget to turn off your rear-defroster on your car,” Pierson said.

The Foundation for Aviation Safety’s compilation of reports also includes ten incidents involving bolts that were “damaged,” “broken,” and “unthreaded,” as well as other issues pointing to ineffective bolting.

As of December 2023, there were 1,160 737 Max series planes in operation.

Considering that the overwhelming number of safety reports came from Alaska Airlines, which currently operates only sixty-six Max planes, Pierson believes that the other US airlines using 737 Max planes — American Airlines, Southwest Airlines, and United Airlines — could be underreporting related issues.

“The other three carriers don’t appear to be submitting their reports in accordance with the spirit of the law, because we know that the Alaska planes were not built in a group,” Pierson said. “Southwest Airlines has over 180 Max airplanes and just a fraction of the reports. We think what’s happening is that they’re choosing not to submit [the reports], and the FAA is not holding them accountable.”

In a statement to us, Southwest Airlines said it complies with FAA reporting standards.

“Southwest Airlines fully complies with those regulations for all aircraft in the fleet,” a Southwest spokesperson said. “The safety of our customers and employees is paramount.”

United Airlines declined to comment for the story. Alaska Airlines and American Airlines did not respond to a request for comment by publication.

“FAA Should Not Have Ungrounded the Plane”

Boeing’s production and safety issues are also detailed in corrective measures called airworthiness directives that the FAA issues for aircraft manufacturers to “correct an unsafe condition.”

In May 2020, the FAA issued a directive for Boeing to fix fuel leaks in up to 731 planes that were caused by a production drawing that “lacked clarity” on where sealant should be applied. The leaks were discovered after a fuel smell was reported in the cabin during a 2019 flight, causing the plane to be diverted.

A postflight inspection found insulation blankets “soaked with fuel,” which could lead to “an ignition of flammable fluid vapors, fire, or explosion, or fuel vapor inhalation by passengers and crew,” the FAA wrote in the directive.

Other directives issued to Boeing in recent years involve its flight control system that caused the two fatal crashes in 2018 and 2019. Former president Donald Trump’s FAA decided to ground the entire 737 Max series on March 13, 2019 — days after dozens of other governments worldwide decided to ground the planes.

The FAA issued an initial corrective measure in 2020 that aimed to address the core problems with the flight control system, and the planes were allowed to resume flying on November 18, 2020. But the FAA had to issue another corrective measure in 2021 for similar issues that could affect the “controllability of the airplane,” the FAA wrote.

“Another day and another piece of evidence indicating that the Boeing 737 Max is not as safe as it should be and that the FAA did not take safety seriously enough when working to unground the plane,” FlyersRights, a passenger advocacy group, wrote in an FAA comment regarding the corrective measure in 2021. “The FAA should not have ungrounded the plane without independent experts gaining access to technical data and documents that convinced the FAA that the 737 Max is safe.”

Boeing’s production issues also include foreign object debris left in roughly half of all Boeing 737 Max planes that had yet to be delivered in 2020, and Boeing has faced issues with foreign object debris more recently. In December 2022, the FAA issued an airworthiness directive for Boeing 787-series planes that may have had debris left in them during work on engine fire shutoff switches.

Following the midair cabin breach on a 737 Max-9 jet earlier this month, 171 Max 9 planes have been grounded, pending an FAA investigation.

On January 20, a Boeing 757 plane operated by Delta Airlines lost a wheel as it was preparing to take off.

You can subscribe to David Sirota’s investigative journalism project, the Lever, here.

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