FAA temporarily grounds Boeing 737 MAX-9 aircraft after in-flight incident

FAA temporarily grounds Boeing 737 MAX-9 aircraft after in-flight incident

The Federal Aviation Administration has ordered most of Boeing’s 737 MAX-9 aircraft to be temporarily grounded, pending inspections, after an exit panel blew off from the Alaska Airlines airplane mid-flight late Friday.

“The FAA is requiring immediate inspections of certain Boeing 737 MAX 9 planes before they can return to flight,” FAA Administrator Mike Whitaker said in a statement, adding that “safety will continue to drive” its decision-making as the agency assists the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation into the flight. The grounding order means about 171 airplanes worldwide will be taken out of service until they can be inspected.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said on X, formerly known as Twitter, that Whitaker “has acted to order these aircraft grounded pending the inspections necessary to ensure that they are safe to operate.”

Alaska Airlines briefly grounded its fleet of 65 Boeing 737 MAX-9 aircraft after the incident — another black mark for Boeing’s MAX fleet.

As of Saturday afternoon, Alaska said it determined that 18 aircraft had “in-depth and thorough plug door inspections performed as part of a recent heavy maintenance visit.” These aircraft “were cleared to return to service today,” Alaska said, adding that the remaining inspections will be completed in the next few days.

The airline did not immediately respond to a request for comment regarding the FAA’s latest decision.

United Airlines — which has 79 of the aircraft in its inventory — said it suspended service for the inspections required by the FAA.

“We are working directly with impacted customers to find them alternative travel options,” the Chicago-based carrier said, adding the suspension will cause roughly 60 flight cancellations on Saturday. Inspections have already been completed on 33 aircraft, United said in a statement.

No one on board was hurt in the Alaska incident, but it raises fresh questions about Boeing’s 737 MAX fleet, which is no stranger to scrutiny. The MAX-9 is a different design than the MAX-8, which was grounded globally for almost two years after two crashes overseas that killed 346 people. Multiple probes into how the MAX-8 was certified heaped blame on both Boeing and the FAA for inadequate oversight.

The Alaska Airlines flight had to turn back around for Portland International Airport around 5 p.m. local time on Friday, after the crew reported a “pressurization issue,” according to the FAA. Video on social media showed a hole in the fuselage near where the mid-cabin exit door should be as the plane came back to land. The plane was put into service in Oct. 2023.

According to FlightAware, a plane tracking website, the plane, bound for Ontario International Airport in California and carrying 170 people, reached 16,000 feet before it turned around. It was in flight for roughly 25 minutes.

Boeing said in a statement it agrees with and fully supports “the FAA’s decision to require immediate inspections of 737-9 airplanes with the same configuration as the affected airplane.”

A Boeing technical team is supporting the National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates transportation incidents, in its investigation. The NTSB launched a team that will probe the matter, with the FAA’s support.

The 737-9 model is the second largest aircraft in the MAX family. It was certified in 2018. There are more than 200 in service globally. The plane in question was delivered to Alaska Airlines in October 2023.

Last month, the FAA also called for additional inspections of the 737 MAX planes following reports of a possible loose bolt in the rudder control system.

Earlier, Alaska said it is returning each aircraft to service “only after completion of full maintenance and safety inspections,” but added the aircraft already inspected had “no concerning findings.” The airline did not respond to questions on how many flights will be impacted from the disruption over coming days, however, the airline has more than 240 commercial aircraft in service, including its regional fleet.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle took to X to express concerns over the event.

Republican Sen. J.D. Vance of Ohio, a member of the Commerce Committee, said the near-catastrophic event raises questions about whether the 737 MAX is safe.

“Pilots have filed safety complaints on these aircraft, many of which had just rolled off the production line, at a rate which is unbecoming of American aviation,” Vance said.

Democratic Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, another member of the committee, said on X that, “We need answers. I’m glad the FAA & NTSB are taking action and investigating this terrifying incident.”

The House Transportation Committee said it will continue to closely monitor developments, including the investigative work of the NTSB.

Meanwhile, The Seattle Times on Friday reported that Boeing is petitioning the FAA to bypass some safety standards for its Boeing 737-7 models involving the engine’s anti-ice system. The Allied Pilots Association told the newspaper the potential flaw “gives us great concern.”

It’s not the first time the company has looked for some leeway: In 2022, Boeing wanted lawmakers to include a provision for its 737-7 and 737-10 airplanes which at the time needed a safety alert system installed by that year’s end. Lawmakers granted the extension.

On Saturday, unions applauded the FAA’s safety initiative, as the airline and the agencies together investigate what occurred during the flight that caused the exit door to abruptly fail.

Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, which represents Alaska Airlines flight attendants, said it “supports the FAA’s quick and decisive action to ground certain 737 MAX 9 Fleet that do not meet the inspection cycles specified in the Emergency Airworthiness Directive,” it said in a statement.

“We will closely monitor the safety inspection process to ensure that aircraft are not returned to service until they are deemed safe for all,” the union said.

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