Boeing Max 9s remain grounded as airlines await inspection instructions

A Boeing jet model, the 737 Max 9, remained grounded in the United States on Sunday as airlines awaited instructions from the planemaker and the Federal Aviation Administration on how to inspect the plans and return to service, two days after a harrowing flight raised concerns. about the jet.

No one was seriously injured during the episode that occurred Friday evening on an Alaska Airlines flight during which part of the fuselage of a Max 9 exploded in mid-flight, exposing passengers to a howling wind. The plane landed safely, but the event, on a flight from Portland, Oregon, to Ontario, California, frightened travelers and sparked an immediate call for safety inspections on Max 9 planes with configurations similar seats.

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

Meanwhile, Alaska, United and other carriers said they had scrapped all of their Max 9 plans, although they said Saturday that some were deemed safe to fly. Federal authorities have drawn attention to a door plug in the middle of the cabin, which was part of the body of the plane that was exposed Friday at an altitude of 16,000 feet 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 investigating the episode, has not identified a cause and is searching for the missing part of the plane. The board said it would look at a wide range of possible factors, including FAA oversight, Boeing’s manufacturing process and installation or maintenance work performed on the plane.

“Everything is included, we go very far, nothing is excluded,” said Jennifer Homendy, president of the board of directors, during a press conference Saturday evening.

The Federal Aviation Administration said Saturday that the required inspections would affect 171 Max 9 planes operated by U.S. airlines or on U.S. territory. He said inspections are expected to take four to eight hours per plan. Overseas airlines, including Turkish Airlines and Copa Airlines in Panama, have also parked Max 9 planes.

The FAA order contributed to the cancellation of hundreds of flights over the weekend. Alaska, which has 65 Max 9 plans, said it canceled 170 flights Sunday due to the Max 9 grounding, affecting about 25,000 customers. She said she expected a “significant” number of additional cancellations in the first half of the week. The airline also said it was awaiting further guidance from Boeing and the FAA regarding door plug inspections on its Max 9 plans.

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

United Airlines said it canceled about 270 flights on Saturday and Sunday that it planned to operate on its Max 9 plans. It said it was able to preserve an additional 145 flights over the two days by swapping other plans.

United offers 79 Max 9 plans, more than any other carrier. In a statement released Sunday, the airline said it has parked all of those plans and has begun removing door panels and conducting preliminary inspections on those planes while awaiting further guidance from the FAA on what inspections should be carried out so that the plans can fly again. .

“We continue 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 respond to this on other flights and, in some cases, have been able to avoid cancellations by switching to other aircraft types.”

Greg Feith, an aviation safety expert and former NTSB investigator, said it was the type of incident where it didn’t happen “until you really get into the investigation — you identify all the facts, conditions and circumstances of this particular event – ​​determine “whether this is simply a one-time problem or a systemic one.” »

In the meantime, those who develop, maintain, operate and regulate the plans will all be in the spotlight.

It’s unclear whether Boeing is responsible 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 accidents that killed hundreds of people in 2018 and 2019 and led to the global grounding of that plane.

“The problem is what’s happening at Boeing,” said John Goglia, a longtime aviation safety consultant and retired member of the National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates plane 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 poorly drilled holes in a component that helps maintain cabin pressure. Since then, Boeing has invested and worked more closely with that supplier, Spirit AeroSystems, to resolve production issues.

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

This weekend, Boeing Chief Executive Dave Calhoun canceled a company executive summit scheduled for this week for the company’s vice presidents and instead plans to hold a live meeting at the company-wide 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 security of our products and services, every decision and every action counts,” he said. “And when serious accidents like this occur, it is essential for us to work transparently with our customers and regulators to understand and address the causes of the event, and to ensure they do not happen again . This is and must be our team’s priority right now.

Deliveries of another Boeing plane, the twin-aisle 787 Dreamliner, were virtually grounded for more than a year, until summer 2022, while the planemaker worked with the FAA to address various manufacturing issues. quality, including very fine gaps in the body of the aircraft. body.

Another flaw discovered last summer further slowed deliveries of the plane. And production of the 737 and 787 has been slow to resume due to these and other quality and supply chain issues.

The Max was grounded in early 2019 after two accidents that killed a total of 346 people in Indonesia and Ethiopia. For 20 months, Boeing worked with regulators around the world to resolve problems with the plane’s flight control software and other components.

By the time passenger flights aboard the Max were summed up in late 2020, the crisis had cost the company an estimated $20 billion.

The two mid-sized variants of the aircraft, the Max 8 and Max 9, have been flying ever since. But the smallest, the Max 7, and the largest, the Max 10, have not yet been approved by regulators.

The Max is the best-selling aircraft in Boeing history. The more than 4,500 outstanding orders for the plane represent more than 76 percent of Boeing’s order backlog. The plane is also popular among airlines: Of the nearly three million flights scheduled worldwide this month, about 5% are expected to be flown using a Max, mainly the Max 8, according to Cirium , an aeronautical data provider.

“Every American deserves a full explanation from Boeing and the FAA about what went wrong and what steps are being taken to ensure another incident does not happen in the future,” the statement said Saturday. Senator JD Vance, Republican of Ohio. on X.

Marc Walker And Christine Chung reports contributed.