ODA is a system under which specially designated Boeing employees are responsible for performing certain functions on behalf of the FAA. Under the arrangement, those employees work independently of Boeing and the FAA has rules in place to shield them from potential conflicts of interest.
But the system has come under scrutiny since the crashes of two Boeing 737 Max jets within five months in late 2018 and early 2019. The crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia killed more than 300 people and led to the worldwide grounding of the 737 Max. The crashes have also prompted lawmakers to re-examine the ODA system and propose legislation to improve it based on lessons taken from the Max certification process.
The concerns outlined in the FAA letters do not involve the 737 Max, but rather the system for overseeing and certifying Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner.
In one instance, the FAA alleges that between September 2018 and May 2019, members of the ODA unit were subjected to “undue pressure of interference” from at least four Boeing managers, including three who were not part of the ODA unit. One ODA unit member was pressured to inspect a plane, even though the aircraft had outstanding issues and was not ready. In other instances, the managers pushed ODA employees to rush inspections and to report aircraft ready for inspection faster. The FAA also alleged that managers berated the performance of some ODA employees, and threatened to have them replaced by other employees or other ODA teams.
At times, the senior managers would stand outside an aircraft to monitor how quickly ODA employees responded to inspection requests and how quickly those inspections were completed, according to the FAA.
And in at least one instance, senior managers retaliated against an ODA manager who reported the pressure employees were facing by refusing to interview “the highly qualified manager” for a position that would have been a promotion. The FAA proposed a fine of just over $1 million for the alleged infractions.
In a separate incident that took place in February, the FAA cited Boeing managers for pressuring employees to sign off on an airplane that was nearing an inspection deadline despite the fact that fixes still needed to be made. When members of the ODA team asked for documentation for work done on a light fixture, “Non-ODA management became agitated and pushed back on the ODA’s request,” according to the FAA letter. In addition, the FAA alleged that Boeing failed to take the necessary steps to ensure the light was installed properly, a violation of its own quality system. The FAA proposed a fine of nearly $185,000 for this instance.
“The FAA’s proposed civil penalties announced today are a clear and strong reminder of our obligations as an ODA holder,” said Bradley N. Akubuiro, a Boeing spokesman. “Undue pressure of any type is inconsistent with our values and will not be tolerated. In both instances, the allegations were appropriately reported, investigated and disclosed to the FAA. Boeing implemented corrective action in response to both incidents and cooperated fully with the FAA’s own independent investigations.”
Even so, the fact that one incident took place as recently as February is certain to raise questions about whether reforms put in place by the company’s top executives are taking root.
In an internal memo, Stan Deal, chief executive of Boeing Commercial Airplanes and Greg Hyslop, Boeing’s chief engineer, sought to underscore the message that safety is the company’s top priority.
“Boeing’s status as an ODA holder is a privilege, not a right, and we have an obligation to work to earn that privilege every day,” the executives wrote in the memo to the company’s engineering managers that was obtained by the Seattle Times. “When exercising delegated authority, Boeing-badged ODA representatives are the FAA, and must be treated with the same respect and deference that is owed to our regulator.”
“We know the vast majority of our team appreciates this,” Deal and Hyslop added. “But just one mistake, or one Boeing employee engaging our ODA representatives in a way that is inconsistent with our values, can undo years of hard-earned trust with the FAA.”
Boeing has 30 days to respond to the FAA’s preliminary investigation.
Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) said that the fine underscored the need for legislation she and Commerce Committee Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) have filed. Their bill would give the FAA greater control over members of Boeing’s certification office.
“Clearly there is a problem, and clearly there is intimidation and we want an independent workforce who is going to basically let the engineers be engineers,” Cantwell said during a committee hearing Thursday. “Let them do the work and not have fear of intimidation or reparation.”