Alaska Airlines has canceled dozens more flights on Boeing 737 MAX 9 aircraft after additional issues surfaced this week. Up to 12,000 passengers had their travel plans disrupted, leading to questions over compensation and broader concerns about Boeing’s production standards. The incidents have prompted new scrutiny from aviation regulators ahead of expected efforts to return the MAX 9 to service.
Panel Blowout Mid-Flight Prompts Emergency Landing
On Wednesday, January 11, 2024, Alaska Airlines flight 1282 was en route from Seattle to San Diego when a 2-foot hole opened in the fuselage, depressurizing the cabin. Pilots enacted emergency procedures and diverted to Portland International Airport.
The hole occurred after an exterior plug door blew out in flight. While the cause remains under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), early signs suggest the plug was not adequately secured during assembly. The part involved covers gaps in the airframe meant to provide access to wiring bundles.
Firsthand accounts describe chaos onboard after the loud explosive noise when the panel blew out. Oxygen masks deployed, and passengers wrestled items sucked towards the hole. One passenger, Leah, said to her grandchildren, “this is when we pray.” Despite the terrifying incident, the pilots’ swift actions ensured no serious injuries.
Airline Cancels 19 MAX 9 Flights in One Day
In the wake of this incident, Alaska Airlines initially canceled 17 flights utilizing Boeing’s MAX 9 on January 12. The airline then canceled two additional MAX 9 flights that evening. Thousands of impacted passengers faced travel headaches due to the cancellations.
Flight records show other carriers with Boeing 737 MAX 9 aircraft in their fleets chose to continue operating the planes. These included American Airlines, United Airlines, and Japan Airlines (JAL). This suggests hesitancy specifically from Alaska Airlines regarding the updated MAX model.
|2024-01-13 MAX 9 Flight Status
|At least 19
Alaska Airlines said the flight cancellations aimed “to enable inspections related to the recent panel issue.” The airline offered passengers who had existing tickets on MAX 9 flights $300 compensation or the option to rebook without fees. Those agreeing to fly on other aircraft received $400.
CEO Admits Mistakes Over Incident
In a televised interview on January 12, Boeing CEO David Calhoun acknowledged mistakes by the company and expressed regret over passenger impacts from the Alaska Airlines emergency.
“The bottom line is that whatever we design, whatever we build, has to have minimal risk associated with it. In this case we failed to eliminate that risk,” said Calhoun. “I’m very sorry for that.”
Calhoun referenced preexisting issues with engineering, manufacturing and oversight from the prior MAX 8 and 9 groundings. “We continue to have problems we are working through…this latest incident shows we still have more work to do.” The CEO promised transparency with aviation authorities and said Boeing aims to win back public trust in its aircraft.
Increased Regulatory Scrutiny for Production
Aviation regulators are taking a closer look at Boeing manufacturing processes after the Alaska Airlines blowout panel incident. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) launched an audit this week of the Boeing 737 MAX 9 production line in Renton, WA. Inspectors will check if assembly procedures conform with federal airworthiness standards.
In addition, the United States Department of Transportation requested detailed answers from the FAA regarding its oversight of Boeing. Key issues include why manufacturing problems keep occurring and how regulators aim to prevent future defects reaching airlines.
The enhanced scrutiny builds on an existing two year supervision period the FAA enacted over Boeing after its deferred prosecution agreement. This agreement avoided criminal charges but required increasing staff, changing procedures and meeting new performance metrics to maintain plane certification eligibility. Critics argue more extensive measures are necessary to curb industry-wide pressures and profit motives potentially impacting safety.
Lingering Concerns Over Supplier Parts
Further concerns have emerged around faulty or poor quality parts making their way onto Boeing’s MAX aircraft from outside suppliers like Aero Space Metal Products (ASMP).
The Wall Street Journal reported Alaska Airlines specifically ordered “plug doors” from ASMP for the panel that blew out mid-flight. Former ASMP employees say in lawsuits that ASMP management ignored pervasive issues with false inspection reports and shipping defective products. Over 30 aviation companies experienced cracked, broken or misaligned parts according to allegations. ASMP has denied wrongdoing in ongoing legal cases.
This highlights that problems with modern aircraft involve a complex, multi-tiered global supply chain. Addressing wider quality assurance in aerospace parts production may prove necessary amid the cascading impacts on airlines and passengers seen this week.
What Comes Next
In the near term, more Alaska Airlines flight cancellations remain possible depending on the results of MAX 9 inspections. Travelers booked on the airline can check reservation status online for updates. Broader impacts currently appear minimal since most flights even for Alaska utilize different planes unaffected by developments with the MAX.
As for returning Boeing’s 737 MAX 9 to service, this remains on indefinite hold. The FAA reiterated no firm timeline exists until satisfying measures bolster manufacturing rigor and operational safety to regulators’ satisfaction. Analysts believe Alaska Airlines and other carriers will stay cautious pending the outcomes from investigations before resuming MAX 9 flights.
In all, renewed scrutiny after successive issues increases pressure on Boeing leadership to follow through on reform pledges. Instilling systemic, cultural and procedural changes sustaining aircraft quality and safety is widely seen as imperative – though challenging given complex structures and incentives involved. For a company still rebuilding public and industry trust, much depends on demonstrating lessons have been learned.
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