FAA orders airlines to ground some Boeing 737 Max 9s after in-flight emergency

The Federal Aviation Administration on Saturday ordered U.S. airlines to stop using some Boeing 737 Max 9s until they are inspected, less than a day after one of those planes lost a piece of its bodies in flight, terrifying the passengers until the plane lands safely.

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

Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 took off Friday from Portland, Oregon, bound for Ontario, California, but was diverted to Portland six minutes later, according to Aware of theft, to the flight tracking website. People on board the flight described a disturbing experience, with wind blowing through a gaping hole that showed the night sky and city lights below. The plane landed about 20 minutes after takeoff and no one on board was seriously injured.

One passenger, Vi Nguyen of Portland, said she woke up to a loud noise during the flight. “I open my eyes and the first thing I see is the oxygen mask right in front of me,” Ms. Nguyen, 22, said. “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.

Although the FAA has yet to publicly discuss the cause of the incident, it has ordered airlines to inspect what it called a “mid-cabin door jam.” Some Boeing 737 Max 9s are configured with fewer seats and therefore do not need all of the exits originally designed for the aircraft. Unnecessary doors are filled with a cork. The Alaska Air plane had two of these unnecessary doors, located between the rear of the plane and the wing emergency exits, that were “blocked.”

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

The FAA order affects approximately 171 plans. The agency said the required inspections are expected to take four to eight hours per plan.

“Safety will continue to guide our decision-making,” agency Administrator Mike Whitaker said in a statement. The FAA works with the NTSB

Boeing released a statement shortly after the FAA 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 Boeing spokeswoman, said in the statement. “We agree and fully support the FAA’s decision to require immediate inspections of 737-9 aircraft with the same configuration as the affected aircraft.”

Alaska Airlines confirmed in a statement Saturday afternoon that it had begun inspecting door plugs and had authorized 18 of its 65 Max 9s to return to service. The airline said it planned to complete the inspections in the coming days. As of midday Saturday, the airline had canceled about 100 flights, or 13% of those scheduled for the day, according to FlightAware. Dozens of other 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 service’s plans is expected to result in about 60 cancellations for the day.

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

Dave Spero, 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 to help them determine how the plug covering the useless door was thrown out of the plane.

“From our point of view, there is no acceptable situation in which this kind of thing should happen, this kind of risk should not be introduced,” Mr Spero said. “They need to find out how this happened and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

The plane was just certified in November, according to the FAA Register of planes. It entered commercial service that month and has since logged 145 flights, according to Flight radar24another flight tracking site.

Keith Tonkin, managing director of Aviation Projects, an aviation consultancy based in Brisbane, Australia, said an excessive difference in air pressure inside and outside the cabin could have caused the breakage of the part.

“The passengers were probably able to breathe normally even when the plane was at its highest altitude,” Tonkin added.

A friend of Ms Nguyen’s, Elizabeth Le, 20, said she heard “an extremely loud pop”. When she looked up, she saw a large hole in the wall of the plane, about two or three rows away, she said.

Ms. told him that no one was sitting in the window seat, next to the hole in the wall, but that a teenage boy and his mother were sitting in the middle and aisle seats. Flight attendants helped them to the other side of the plane a few minutes later, she said. The boy seemed to have lost his shirt and her skin was red and irritated, she became angry.

“Honestly, it was horrible,” she said. “I almost collapsed, but I realized I had to stay calm.”

There were announcements over the speaker system, but none were audible because the wind blowing through the plane was so strong, she said.

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

Mr Smith said his experience as a military police officer taught him the importance of keeping a cool head in such situations. Additionally, he said: “The plane was stable. It wasn’t shaking. He wasn’t doing any weird moves. “It was just flying steady.”

He added: “I was sure the plane was fine and we were going to go down fine. »

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

Sara Nelson, 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 an essential measure to ensure the safety of all crew and passengers, as well as confidence in aviation safety,” she said. “Life must always come first. »

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

Boeing’s Max planes have a storied history. After two Max 8 plane crashes killed hundreds of people over several months in 2018 and 2019, the Max was grounded worldwide.

In 2018, Lion Air Flight 610, a 737 Max 8, crashed into the ocean off the coast of Indonesia, killing all 189 passengers and crew. Less than five months later, in 2019, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashed shortly after leaving the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, killing all 157 people on board.

The Max plans were dashed after the second crash. Boeing made changes to the plane, including the flight control system that caused the crashes, and the FAA cleared it to fly again in late 2020. In 2021, the company agreed to a $2 settlement $.5 billion with the Justice Department, resolving a criminal charge that Boeing conspired to defraud the agency.

In December, Boeing urged airlines to inspect all 737 Max planes for a possible loose bolt in the rudder control system after an international airline discovered a bolt with a missing nut during routine maintenance. Alaska Airlines said at the time that it expected to complete inspections of its fleet in the first half of January.

Max plans are widely used. Of the nearly 2.9 million flights scheduled worldwide in January, 4.3% are expected to be flown with Max 8 plans, while 0.7% are expected to use the Max 9.

The Max is the most popular plane in Boeing’s history, accounting for a fifth of all orders placed since 1955, according to company data.

John Yoon, Victoria Kim, Orlando Mayorquin, Rebecca Carballo And Christine Chung reports contributed.