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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

FAA orders airlines to ground some Boeing 737 Max 9 jets after midair emergency

Photo by John McArthur on Unsplash

By Mark Walker and Niraj Chokshi

The Federal Aviation Administration on Saturday ordered U.S. airlines to stop using some Boeing 737 Max 9 planes until they were inspected, less than a day after one of those planes lost a chunk of its body in midair, terrifying passengers until the plane landed safely.

Alaska and United Airlines on Saturday began canceling dozens of flights after grounding their Max 9 fleets so the planes could undergo the federally mandated inspections.

Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 took off from Portland, Oregon, on Friday, bound for Ontario, California, but was diverted back to Portland six minutes later, according to FlightAware, a flight tracking website. Those on board the flight described an unnerving experience, with wind blowing through a gaping hole that showed the night sky and the city lights below. The plane landed about 20 minutes after it had taken off, and no one aboard was seriously injured.

A passenger, Vi Nguyen of Portland, said that she woke up to a loud sound during the flight. “I open up my eyes and the first thing I see is the oxygen mask right in front of me,” said Nguyen, 22. “And I look to the left and the wall on the side of the plane is gone.

“The first thing I thought was, ‘I’m going to die,’” she added.

The National Transportation Safety Board sent a team to Portland to begin its investigation into the incident.

While the FAA has yet to publicly discuss what caused the incident, it ordered airlines to inspect what it called a “mid cabin door plug.” Some of the Boeing 737 Max 9s are configured with fewer seats and, therefore, do not need all the exits originally designed for the plane. The unneeded doors are filled with a plug. The Alaska Air plane had two of those unneeded doors, located between the rear of the plane and the wing emergency exits, that were “plugged.”

Forrest Gossett, a spokesperson for Spirit AeroSystems, said Saturday that his company installed door plugs on the Max 9s and that Spirit had installed the plug on the Alaska Air flight.

The FAA’s order affects about 171 planes. The agency said that the required inspections should take four to eight hours per plane to complete.

“Safety will continue to drive our decision-making,” the agency’s administrator, Mike Whitaker, said in a statement. The FAA is working with the NTSB.

Boeing issued a statement shortly after the FAA’s grounding order. “Safety is our top priority and we deeply regret the impact this event has had on our customers and their passengers,” Jessica Kowal, a spokesperson for Boeing, said in the statement. “We agree with and fully support the FAA’s decision to require immediate inspections of 737-9 airplanes with the same configuration as the affected airplane.”

Alaska Airlines confirmed in a statement Saturday afternoon that it had started inspecting the door plugs and had cleared 18 of its 65 Max 9s to return to service. The airline said it expected to complete the inspections in the next few days. As of midday Saturday, the airline had canceled about 100 flights, or 13% of those scheduled for the day, according to FlightAware. Dozens more flights were delayed.

United Airlines operates more Max 9s than any other airline, according to Cirium, an aviation data provider. Of United’s 79 Max 9s in service, 33 have already been inspected, the airline said in a statement Saturday. The airline said the removal of the planes from service was expected to cause about 60 cancellations for the day.

“We are working directly with impacted customers to find them alternative travel options,” the airline said in a statement.

Dave Spero, the president of the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists, a union that represents more than 11,000 federal aviation workers including safety inspectors, said Saturday that aviation safety experts from his union would be on the ground with the NTSB helping to determine how the plug covering the unneeded door was blown out of the plane.

“From our perspective, there is no acceptable type of situation where this kind of thing should happen; this sort of risk shouldn’t be introduced,” Spero said. “They need to find out how it happened and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

The plane was just certified in November, according to the FAA registry of aircraft. It entered commercial service that month and has since logged 145 flights, according to Flightradar24, another flight tracking site.

Evan Smith, 72, a lawyer who was returning to his home in Murrieta, California, after visiting his daughter and son-in-law who live in Portland, said he heard a loud “bang” and saw some “dusky, smoky stuff” swirling around the cabin.

Smith said his experience as a military police officer taught him that it was important to keep a cool head in these situations. Plus, he said: “The plane was stable. It wasn’t shaking. It wasn’t making any weird maneuvers. It was just flying steady.”

He added, “I was sure the aircraft was fine and we were going to get down OK.”

Passengers were swarming Alaska Airlines’ phone lines Saturday to rebook canceled flights and determine whether upcoming flights would be affected by the grounding. Customer service hold times, passengers were saying on social media, exceeded seven hours.

Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants, a union that represents flight attendants at Alaska, United and other airlines, said in a statement Saturday that she welcomed the inspections required by the FAA.

“This is a critical move to ensure the safety of all crew and passengers, as well as confidence in aviation safety,” she said. “Lives must come first always.”

The Air Line Pilots Association, a union that represents pilots at Alaska, United and other airlines, echoed that sentiment in a statement Saturday, saying that it applauded the FAA for ordering the grounding to ensure the safety of crews and the flying public.

Boeing’s Max aircraft have a troubled history. After two crashes of Max 8 jets killed hundreds of people within several months in 2018 and 2019, the Max was grounded around the world.

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