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FAA takes over airworthiness checks for some Boeing 787s, citing production issues

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Boeing 787 Dreamliners have been parked at the North Charleston plant for months awaiting delivery. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

The Federal Aviation Administration is stepping up its oversight of Boeing's North Charleston-based 787 program by taking over a critical factory review for several of the widebodies, including jets built at the South Carolina plant.

Officials from the government agency will inspect at least four Dreamliners for airworthiness, replacing company workers who would normally perform the checks. The FAA also will certify the planes for flight. 

"The FAA is taking a number of corrective actions to address Boeing 787 production issues," the agency said said in a written statement. "One of the actions is retaining the authority to issue airworthiness certificates for four 787 aircraft."

Government inspectors could expand the checks beyond the first four planes to others if "they see the need," according to the statement. 

Manufacturing issues with the 787 program arose last year, when Boeing said it found some flaws with the interior skin of the aircraft. 

Fuselage inspections on the jets have been underway for months in North Charleston and Everett, Wash., where the company shut down Dreamliner production in late February as part of cost-cutting plan.

Boeing hasn't delivered a 787 since October.

While the latest checks were prompted by production concerns, the FAA said its staffers have performed airworthiness reviews on the jets "over the past few years" so that they could "fulfill their inspection-currency requirements."

Boeing said in a written statement that it is "encouraged by the progress our team is making on returning to delivery activities for the 787 program." 

"We have engaged the FAA throughout this effort and will implement their direction for airworthiness certification approval of the initial airplanes as they have done in the past,“ the company said. 

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The increased scrutiny of the Dreamliner program comes on the heels of Boeing's 737 Max crisis.

The FAA recertified the Max for commercial flights in November after a 20-month grounding of the jet prompted by two crashes that killed all 346 passengers and crew members. 

Earlier this year, the Justice Department charged Boeing with conspiring to defraud the safety agency, saying some company employees impeded the investigation into the deadly accidents by providing misleading statements about the aircraft. The planemaker is paying about $2.5 billion to settle the criminal case.

Boeing has said the 787 production issues it's working to fix don't pose an immediate flight-safety concern. During his last earnings call, CEO Dave Calhoun said the company would "make sure the FAA is comfortable with every" step they're taking with the Dreamliner. 

In addition to the fuselage inspections, Boeing has started checking cockpit windows installed on the 787 to ensure they meet specifications after learning a supplier changed its production process.

Even with all of the extra oversight and quality reviews, the company said earlier this week that it still expects to start handing over Dreamliners to customers again by the end of March. It also cautioned it will "continue to take the time necessary" and adjust delivery schedules if needed. 

The FAA's scrutiny of the 787 program and, specifically, the North Charleston campus, most recently came in the form of $1.21 million payment from Boeing to settle allegations that senior managers at the local plant put “undue pressure” on safety workers. 

That penalty was tacked onto a $5.4 million fine for the company's “failure to meet performance obligations” laid out in a 2015 settlement agreement, for a total of $6.6 million that the FAA announced in February.

Reach Emily Williams at 843-607-0894. Follow her on Twitter @emilye_williams.

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