Boeing’s troubled 737 MAX faced another setback this week when a panel blew out from a MAX 9 aircraft operated by Alaska Airlines, resulting in renewed scrutiny of Boeing’s manufacturing and safety processes. The incident has raised further doubts about when the MAX will return to service.
Panel detaches at cruise altitude
On January 9th, Alaska Airlines flight 1282, a Boeing 737 MAX 9, was flying at cruise altitude from Seattle to Santa Ana, California when a panel next to an overwing exit blew out, creating a hole in the side of the aircraft . Debris from the panel struck the left wing, though pilots were able to land safely in Orange County around 40 minutes later.
The panel was part of a plug installation around one of the 737 MAX 9’s emergency exit doors. Boeing and the FAA confirmed that the panel was designed to blow out in the event the exit needed to be used, in order to equalize cabin pressure. However, the panel should not have blown out under normal operating conditions .
Manufacturing issues may have led to detachment
The incident has raised questions about potential issues in Boeing’s manufacturing processes for the 737 MAX. Investigators found that some of the fasteners designed to hold the panel in place may have been improperly tightened at the Boeing factory . This could have allowed pressure changes in flight to gradually push the panel loose until it detached.
Boeing obtains 737 fuselages and other parts from suppliers around the world, and has faced criticism over inconsistent quality in these outsourced components . For example, the exit door frame on the Alaska Airlines aircraft had been manufactured by Spirit AeroSystems in Malaysia. Boeing says it is now revising its quality control processes.
40 Boeing 737 MAX planes inspected
In response to the incident, the FAA ordered inspections on 40 currently grounded Boeing 737 MAX planes, focusing specifically on panels around two overwing exits . The inspections were completed by January 17th and found no issues with the panel attachments.
The FAA continues to investigate manufacturing data related to the Alaska Airlines aircraft to determine if there are any fleetwide issues impacting currently grounded MAX planes. The agency states it will take any necessary actions up to and including grounding additional MAX planes if problems are found .
Future of the 737 MAX program
The latest incident has raised doubts about when Boeing’s 737 MAX aircraft will return to service. The MAX family has been grounded globally since March 2019 following two deadly crashes attributed in part to flight control software.
Boeing has since developed software fixes and training protocol in hopes of gaining re-certification from aviation regulators. However, ongoing concerns about Boeing’s safety culture and transparency continue to delay the MAX’s return.
Aviation analysts worry the Alaska Airlines blowout may force yet another delay if deeper issues are found with the MAX manufacturing process. This could also impact Boeing’s plans for a 737 MAX 10 variant to compete with rival Airbus. As one analyst states, “Boeing feels like it just can’t catch a break with the MAX program” .
What happens next
In the near-term, Alaska Airlines has stated that it will cancel at least 110 flights per day while additional inspections are carried out on its MAX 9 fleet . Passengers who were on flight 1282 have also filed lawsuits against both Boeing and Alaska Airlines seeking damages related to emotional trauma.
Meanwhile, Congressional hearings are likely later this month, keeping pressure on Boeing’s leadership team to explain how issues like the panel detachment could happen. From a public relations perspective, the company continues an apology tour, with CEO Stan Deal stating that safety is still “job one” for Boeing while it works to restore confidence . For Deal and the Boeing board, the road ahead remains turbulent.
|40 Boeing 737 MAX 9 aircraft
|No fleetwide issues related to exit door panels
|FAA continues investigation into Alaska Airlines blowout
|Alaska Airlines MAX 9 fleet
|At least 110 flight cancellations daily during inspections
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