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An American Airlines Boeing 787 Dreamliner at Terminal D of Dallas Fort Worth International Airport on Friday, Dec. 3, 2021, in Dallas. (Elias Valverde II/The Dallas Morning News/TNS)
An American Airlines Boeing 787 Dreamliner at Terminal D of Dallas Fort Worth International Airport on Friday, Dec. 3, 2021, in Dallas. (Elias Valverde II/The Dallas Morning News/TNS)

Julie Johnsson, Allyson Versprille | Bloomberg News (TNS)

Boeing Co. said it’s inspecting undelivered 787 Dreamliners after discovering that fasteners were incorrectly installed on a section of the carbon-composite aircraft, underscoring the heightened scrutiny on quality lapses at the embattled manufacturer.

The issue is the latest to come to light as U.S. regulators ramp up oversight of Boeing following a near-catastrophe with another jet model, the 737 Max, earlier this year. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration is also probing the 787 quality defect, the agency said.

The FAA has “multiple active investigations” into the planemaker underway following a rise in reports from whistleblowers and through its safety hotline, FAA chief Michael Whitaker said at a Senate hearing on Thursday.

“You expect to see an increase in reports when you have a safe place for employees to report, so that’s what we want to see,” Whitaker told reporters after the hearing. “We would be a little concerned if we weren’t seeing an increase in numbers.”

The fastener misstep underscores how Boeing continues to unearth manufacturing errors as it works to tighten up quality standards after a door plug blew off a 737 Max mid-flight in January. U.S. investigators have said the panel was missing four bolts meant to hold it in place, a revelation that unleashed withering scrutiny of the planemaker from regulators, airlines and the public.

The company hasn’t halted deliveries of the 787 as it determines whether any repairs will be needed to fix the incorrectly torqued fasteners, which connect the mid-section of the carbon-composite barrels to interior strengthening components. The FAA said in a statement that the problem doesn’t pose an immediate flight-safety issue.

“Our 787 team is checking fasteners in the side-of-body area of some undelivered 787 Dreamliner airplanes to ensure they meet our engineering specifications,” Boeing said in a statement Thursday. “The in-service fleet can continue to safely operate. We are taking the time necessary to ensure all airplanes meet our delivery standards prior to delivery.”

Boeing said it discovered the manufacturing glitch through its quality management system, and that it alerted the FAA. The discovery, first reported on Thursday by Reuters, is the latest in a spate of errors to come to light as the manufacturer encourages workers to flag issues and addresses damage to its safety culture exposed by the latest crisis. Whitaker said he intends to visit the North Charleston plant where the Dreamliner is manufactured on Friday.

Max deliveries

Whitaker during the hearing said the FAA won’t lift a cap on output for the 737 Max model it imposed earlier this year until he’s satisfied the company’s steps to bolster quality and safety have taken root.

Boeing’s 737 output in recent months has been a fraction of the 38 jets per month allowed by the agency. But there are signs that the pace of work is starting to pick up, as executives have predicted.

The U.S. planemaker appears to have delivered 11 Max aircraft so far in June, up from four at the same point in May, Deutsche Bank analyst Scott Deuschle said in a note to clients on Thursday. Boeing’s only other delivery for the month is a 787 Dreamliner, he said.

More oversight

During the Senate hearing, Whitaker faulted the agency for not having “much better visibility” into the company prior to the Jan. 5 accident.

A prior approach to oversight was too focused on paperwork audits rather than on-the-ground inspections, he said. That policy has since changed, he said.

The FAA will monitor a series of factory measures in real-time, including some designed to flag work performed out of sequence. It will also track worker training and measures the company implements to monitor workers tools — a common source of so-called “foreign object debris” left in planes.

Progress on those fronts will determine when the cap on 737 production is removed, Whitaker said.

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