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Boeing must improve quality before boosting 737 production, FAA says

FILE PHOTO: Boeing's new 737 MAX-9 is pictured under construction at their production facility in Renton, Washington

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The head of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration said Boeing must improve safety culture and address quality issues before the agency will allow the planemaker to boost 737 MAX production.

The FAA in late January took the unprecedented step of telling Boeing it would not allow the company to expand 737 MAX production in the wake of a mid-air emergency on an Alaska Airlines jet earlier in the month.

FAA Administrator Mike Whitaker told Reuters in an interview on Tuesday that the agency has not begun discussions yet with Boeing about hiking 737 production, and said the agency will only permit an increase when Boeing is "running a quality system safely."

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Whitaker said he has the tools to hold Boeing "accountable and fully intend to use them."

Boeing did not immediately comment.

Whitaker said Boeing is allowed to produce 38 of the 737 planes per month, but actual current production "is lower than that"; he did not elaborate.

Boeing's chief financial officer, Brian West, said last month that the planemaker's first-half output of 737 planes would be less than 38 per month, but in the second half said he expected it would "move toward that 38 per month, but it will be dictated" by the FAA.

The FAA's Whitaker said the timeline on when Boeing will be allowed to boost the 737 MAX production rate will depend on "how effectively they can implement these changes in the safety culture and bring their quality levels up to where they need to be."

The Justice Department has opened a criminal probe into the January mid-air 737 MAX 9 cabin panel blowout.

On Feb. 28, Whitaker said Boeing must develop a comprehensive plan to address "systemic quality-control issues" within 90 days and set milestones.

"This is a long-term endeavor -- it takes a long time to change culture," Whitaker said on Tuesday. "They certainly have it within their capabilities to do that.

"I don't want to give the impression that this is a 90-day fix and then we move on," he added.

Separately, Whitaker spoke over the weekend with United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby about a series of recent safety incidents, including a plane that lost a panel on Friday.

Kirby told customers on Monday the airline is reviewing recent safety incidents and using insights to update employee safety training and procedures.

Kirby "knows we're going to be engaging a little more closely with them as we look into these," Whitaker said.

United declined comment.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Leslie Adler)