Alaska Airlines’ CEO Ben Minicucci expressed frustration over continued manufacturing issues with Boeing’s 737 MAX aircraft, following an incident last week where a panel flew off one of their planes shortly after takeoff. This latest event has raised further scrutiny and safety concerns around Boeing’s production practices.
Background on the Recent Alaska Airlines Incident
Last Tuesday, Alaska Airlines flight #1282 from Seattle to San Diego was forced to turn back to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport soon after takeoff when a panel on the exterior of the airplane detached, leaving a gaping hole in the side of the aircraft (Alaska Airlines). Thankfully the plane was able to land safely and none of the 186 passengers and crew onboard were injured.
Investigators discovered that two of six bolts designed to hold an exterior panel next to the passenger door had not been properly installed by Boeing mechanics. This panel helps smooth airflow and reduce noise during flight. With two bolts completely missing, the panel was ripped from the aircraft by excessive wind forces shortly after takeoff (Seattle Times).
“This could have been catastrophic,” Alaska Airlines CEO Ben Minicucci told NBC News. “We got lucky here.” (NBC News)
The aircraft involved was a Boeing 737 MAX 9, the larger variant of the controversial Boeing 737 MAX family. While the 737 MAX 8 has been cleared to fly again after a 20-month grounding following two fatal crashes, the MAX 9 only returned to service in December 2021 and there are still relatively few of them operating today.
Alaska Airlines CEO Expresses Anger and Frustration Over Latest Boeing Issue
In multiple interviews, Alaska Airlines CEO Ben Minicucci expressed anger and dismay over continued lapses in Boeing’s production quality and apparent lack of progress in rectifying issues.
“I’ll be blunt here. I am pissed. It angers me when I know our frontline employees go above and beyond to care for our guests, only for situations like this, beyond their control, to happen” said Minicucci on the incident (Alaska Statement).
He went on to say:
“Safety is always priority number one…As Alaskans we showed grit on Tuesday night to handle the situation well. What happened should not have happened” (Alaska Statement).
In a separate interview with NBC News, Minicucci revealed Alaska Airlines found loose bolts on “many” of its other MAX 9 aircraft during safety checks prompted by the panel detachment incident last week:
“We inspected 10 MAX 9 airplanes that we currently have in our fleet and we found a few loose fittings on some of the doors where that panel was attached. It was very concerning to us.” (NBC News)
Boeing Admits Fault, Launches Further Inspections
While Boeing initially pointed to their supplier Spirit Aerosystems for potentially botching the panel installation on Alaska’s MAX 9, they later backtracked and admitted it was installed by Boeing mechanics in Renton, WA. Boeing expressed regret over the incident:
“Safety is always our highest priority. We regret the impact to our customer and their passengers.” (Seattle Times)
They also committed to determining the root cause:
“We will fully support Alaska Airlines’ investigation into the cause of the event and are working closely with the FAA to conduct a thorough investigation and implementation of all resulting actions.”
In response, the FAA issued an Emergency Airworthiness Directive recommending operators of all 737-900 and 737-900ER aircraft (an older generation than the MAX) conduct external door inspections looking for improperly secured door panels. So far none of the other jets inspected have revealed problems to the same extent as Alaska’s MAX 9 fleet (USA Today).
But the directive prompted United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby, a longtime critic of Boeing’s manufacturing issues, to voice his own doubts and concerns:
“We need to reevaluate MAX 10 commitment” said Kirby. “While the safety directive does not impact the MAX 10 specifically there are still open questions that we need answered.” (CNBC)
What Comes Next?
In response to all the latest scrutiny, Boeing is pressing suppliers to tighten their quality control and production standards. They recently sent a memo to all suppliers warning of more stringent enforcement of production norms and demanding suppliers actively look for safety risks or face losing future contracts (Reuters). Insiders say cost cutting in the aerospace supply chain has gone too far and may be hurting safety.
As well, Boeing appointed retired Navy Vice Adm. Carl V. Mauney as a senior advisor focusing on quality and safety oversight across their manufacturing operations (Times of India). Many experts say there needs to be an independent internal oversight team that can stand up to production managers focused narrowly on schedules and budgets.
Alaska Airlines has taken action demanding an explanation from Boeing within 10 days (Anchorage Daily News). CEO Minicucci says he remains “very angry” and if he does not get adequate responses from Boeing, he may re-evaluate their future orders which includes 52 more MAX aircraft:
“We need answers sooner rather than later,” said Minicucci. “I’m not blaming anyone, but the culture needs to change.”
Analysts say this is not just an isolated issue – there is an apparent ongoing culture crisis within Boeing centered on quality, transparency and accountability. Without systemic change in production and safety practices more incidents and further damage to Boeing’s reputation seem inevitable. But with the duopoly of Boeing vs Airbus there are no easy alternatives for airlines who need narrow-body jets to serve passengers. Difficult decisions lie ahead.
|Lion Air 737 MAX 8 crashes killing 189
|Ethiopian Airlines 737 MAX 8 crashes killing 157
|737 MAX grounded globally
|FAA clears MAX 8 to fly again
|MAX 9 certified
|January 17, 2023
|Panel detaches from Alaska MAX 9 inflight
|January 23, 2023
|Alaska discloses loose bolts on more planes
|January 23, 2023
|FAA issues inspection directive
|January 23, 2023
|Alaska CEO expresses anger at Boeing
|January 23 2023
|United CEO questions MAX 10 commitment
This evolving situation pitting airlines against aircraft maker Boeing seems destined for further turbulence in 2023. Alaska and United’s vocal frustration stems from years of 737 MAX problems and speak to deeper issues around Boeing’s internal culture that remain unresolved. While the plane involved last week landed safely, CEO Minicucci contends that was ultimately “just luck” – next time we may not be so fortunate.
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