The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has expanded its investigation into recent issues with Boeing’s 737 MAX 9 aircraft, after a panel blew out mid-flight on an Alaska Airlines plane last week. This latest incident has raised further questions about Boeing’s safety culture and quality control processes.
The Boeing 737 MAX family of aircraft has been controversial since entering service in 2017. Two fatal crashes in 2018 and 2019, killing 346 people total, were linked to an automated flight control system called MCAS. This led to the entire 737 MAX fleet being grounded worldwide from March 2019 to December 2020. Boeing made several design changes to MCAS and other systems before the planes were cleared to fly again.
The 737 MAX 9 variant began commercial service with United Airlines in June 2021. Over the next two years, several other North American carriers also began operating the plane. Alaska Airlines launched the first commercial MAX 9 flights only last November.
Details of Recent Alaska Airlines Incident
On January 9th, 2023, Alaska Airlines flight #1282 from Seattle to San Diego was forced to make an emergency landing in Portland after a two-foot hole opened in the side of the plane mid-flight. The hole was located in a panel towards the front of the aircraft on the passenger door side.
Investigators believe an improperly installed plug is what blew out, creating the hole. This plug is meant to cover an opening used for manufacturing purposes, which is later supposed to be sealed.
Remarkably, none of the 182 passengers and crew onboard were injured in this incident. Passenger footage showing insulation and debris outside the aircraft went viral online, raising concerns about Boeing manufacturing safety.
FAA Review & Expanded Investigation
Following standard protocol after aviation incidents, the FAA immediately began reviewing data from Alaska Airlines and Boeing. By January 11th, they decided to temporarily ground all 737 MAX 9 planes for further inspections.
Over the next week, the FAA directed inspections on 40 out of 59 MAX 9 aircraft currently operating in U.S. carrier fleets. No issues were found on the inspected planes, allowing them to return to service by January 17th.
However, on the 17th the FAA confirmed they are expanding the investigation to include a closer look at Boeing’s production and quality control processes. They will also be auditing one of Boeing’s key part suppliers, Spirit AeroSystems. Spirit manufactures and assembles large fuselage sections for the 737 MAX in Wichita, Kansas.
The FAA indicated their heightened scrutiny of Boeing will continue for the foreseeable future:
“Safety is the central focus of the FAA. We will go where the findings take us, as we systematically complete our investigation.”
Boeing also stated they are cooperating fully with the review and making changes to inspection protocols:
“We have established rigorous processes to ensure manufacturing quality and have already made a number of improvements…we will continue to proactively add inspections as we identify opportunities to drive higher quality.”
|Major 737 MAX Incidents
|Lion Air 610 crash
|Ethiopian Airlines 302 crash
|Alaska Airlines 1282 blowout
Impact on Alaska Airlines & Other Carriers
The first lawsuit from passengers of Alaska 1282 has already been filed against Boeing. Alaska Airlines also had to cancel 24 MAX 9 flights over 5 days during the grounding period.
Other carriers with MAX 9 fleets have not announced cancellations yet, but had contingency plans in place in case they were needed. United Airlines was preparing to swap around 40 daily MAX 9 flights to other aircraft types if the grounding was extended.
Alaska Airlines has sent several high ranking executives, including CEO Ben Minicucci, to meet directly with Boeing leadership about this event. Alaska has stated they intend “to participate in, understand, and monitor the measures Boeing takes going forward.”
As newer MAX 9 operators, this incident seems to have shaken Alaska Airline’s confidence in Boeing somewhat. According to an inside source, the airline is:
“Reviewing Boeing’s production quality control processes, including oversight from Federal regulators, to ensure confidence going forward.”
The potential damage to passenger trust and Boeing’s reputation from this new incident should not be overlooked either.
What Comes Next
The FAA has not given a timeline for completion of their expanded review and audit of Boeing procedures. Final results likely won’t come for several months at least.
It’s expected the investigation will be transparent and could force Boeing into making accountability or leadership changes if major quality control failures are identified. Some aviation analysts have argued Boeing needs to:
“Rebuild its corporate culture to focus intently on safety and transparency.”
While the MAX 9 model itself is not likely to be recertified or taken out of service entirely, Boeing will almost certainly have to implement costly changes to inspection protocols and documentation.
There may also be a push to increase FAA oversight and personnel embedded at Boeing manufacturing facilities. Legal settlements with passengers and pressure from airlines for compensation could also be extensive depending on investigation findings.
In summary – Boeing, Alaska Airlines and aviation regulators still have a challenging road ahead to determine root causes and prevent future manufacturing issues. But the response signals a shift towards increased safety accountability and transparency for the aviation industry as a whole.
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