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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Boeing Max 9 jets remain grounded as airlines await inspection instructions



Boeing and the FAA were working to draft a message to airlines — primarily Alaska Airlines and United Airlines — with detailed instructions on how to inspect the planes, according to a person familiar with the process.

By Niraj Chokshi


A Boeing passenger jet model, the 737 Max 9, remained grounded in the United States earlier this week as airlines awaited instructions from the maker of the plane and from the Federal Aviation Administration on how to inspect the planes and resume service, two days after a harrowing flight raised concerns about the jet.


No one was seriously injured in the episode on an Alaska Airlines flight on Friday night in which a portion of a Max 9 fuselage blew out in midair, exposing passengers to howling wind. The plane landed safely, but the event, on a flight from Portland, Oregon, to Ontario, California, has spooked travelers and prompted an immediate call for safety inspections on Max 9 planes with similar seat configurations.


Boeing and the FAA were working to draft a message to airlines — primarily Alaska Airlines and United Airlines — with detailed instructions on how to inspect the planes, according to a person familiar with the process. Those discussions were well underway Sunday, and the FAA has final approval over the contents of the message, as is typically the case.


In the meantime, Alaska, United and other carriers said they had parked all their Max 9 planes, despite stating Saturday that some were deemed safe to fly. Federal authorities have focused attention on a midcabin door plug, which was part of the plane body that was torn out at an altitude of 16,000 feet Friday and is used to fill the space where an emergency exit would be placed if the plane were configured with more seats.


The National Transportation Safety Board, which is leading an investigation into the episode, has not identified a cause and is searching for the missing piece of the plane. The board said it would look into a wide range of possible factors, including FAA oversight, Boeing’s manufacturing process, and installation or maintenance work done on the plane.


“Everything’s in, we go very broad, nothing’s excluded,” Jennifer Homendy, chair of the board, said at a news conference Saturday night.


The FAA said Saturday that the required inspections would affect 171 Max 9 planes operated by U.S. airlines or in U.S. territory. It said the inspections should take four to eight hours per plane to complete. Airlines abroad, including Turkish Airlines and Copa Airlines in Panama, also parked Max 9 planes.


The FAA order contributed to hundreds of canceled flights over the weekend. Alaska, which has 65 Max 9 planes, said it had canceled 170 flights Sunday because of the Max 9 grounding, affecting about 25,000 customers. It said it expected a “significant” number of additional cancellations in the first half of the week. The airline also said that it was waiting for further instruction from Boeing and the FAA on inspections of the door plug on its Max 9 planes.


Travelers took to social media to complain about long hold times on the phone for customer service at Alaska, and inadequate compensation as they waited at the airport and faced lengthy delays and abrupt cancellations.


United Airlines said it had canceled about 270 flights Saturday and Sunday that it had planned to carry out aboard its Max 9 planes. It said it was able to preserve another 145 flights over both days by swapping in other planes.


United has 79 Max 9 planes, more than any other carrier. In a statement Sunday, the airline said it had parked all those planes and had started removing door panels and performing preliminary inspections on those jets while it awaited further FAA instructions on what inspections would need to be carried out to get the planes flying again.


“We’re continuing to work with the FAA to clarify the inspection process and requirements for returning all Max 9 aircraft to service,” the airline said in a statement. “We are working with customers to reaccommodate them on other flights and in some cases have been able to avoid cancellations by switching to other aircraft types.”


Greg Feith, an aviation security expert and a former NTSB investigator, said this was the type of incident in which it was not “until you really get into the investigation — you identify all the facts, conditions and circumstances of this particular event — do you determine whether this is just a one-off or a systemic problem.”


In the meantime, those who make, service, operate and regulate the planes will be in the spotlight.


It is not clear whether Boeing is to blame for what happened to the Alaska Airlines plane, but the episode raises new questions for the manufacturer and puts additional pressure on it. Another version of the Max, a 737 Max 8, was involved in two crashes that killed hundreds of people in 2018 and 2019 and led to a worldwide grounding of that plane.


“The issue is what’s going on at Boeing,” said John Goglia, a longtime aviation safety consultant and a retired member of the NTSB, which investigates airplane crashes.


Last month, the company urged airlines to inspect the more than 1,300 delivered Max planes for a possible loose bolt in the rudder-control system. Over the summer, Boeing said a key supplier had improperly drilled holes in a component that helps to maintain cabin pressure. Since then, Boeing has invested in and worked more closely with that supplier, Spirit AeroSystems, to address production problems.


Spirit AeroSystems also worked on the fuselage for the 737 Max 9, including manufacturing and installing the door plug that failed on the Alaska Airlines flight.


This weekend, Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun canceled a previously scheduled leadership summit for the company’s vice presidents this week and instead plans to host a companywide livestreamed meeting Tuesday to discuss its response to the accident and reiterate Boeing’s commitment to “safety, quality, integrity and transparency,” he said in a message to employees.


“When it comes to the safety of our products and services, every decision and every action matters,” he said. “And when serious accidents like this occur, it is critical for us to work transparently with our customers and regulators to understand and address the causes of the event, and to ensure they don’t happen again. This is and must be the focus of our team right now.”


The Max is the bestselling plane in Boeing’s history. The more than 4,500 outstanding orders for the plane account for more than 76% of Boeing’s order book. The plane is also popular among airlines: Of the nearly 3 million flights scheduled globally this month, about 5% are planned to be carried out using a Max, mostly the Max 8, according to Cirium, an aviation data provider.


“Every American deserves a full explanation from Boeing and the FAA on what’s gone wrong and on the steps that are being taken to ensure another incident does not occur in the future,” U.S. Sen. J.D. Vance, R-Ohio, said in a post on Saturday on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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