Following a cabin panel breach that caused a new Alaska Airlines flight carrying passengers to an emergency landing, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) temporarily grounded certain Boeing 737 MAX 9 jetliners on Saturday for safety checks.
On Friday, a piece of fuselage tore off the left side of the airplane as it rose after takeoff from Portland, Oregon, on its way to Ontario, California, forcing pilots to turn around and land safely with all 171 passengers and six crew on board.
The Boeing 737 MAX 9 had only been in operation for eight weeks.
The FAA’s decision falls far short of the global grounding of Boeing (BA.N) MAX planes nearly five years ago after two crashes killed nearly 350 people. Nonetheless, it is another setback for Boeing as it attempts to recover from back-to-back crises over safety and the pandemic while saddled with massive debts.
On Saturday, the FAA did not rule out further action as an investigation into the apparent structural breakdown, which left a rectangular hole in an area of fuselage earmarked for an optional extra door but deactivated on Alaska’s aircraft, began.
The Boeing 737 MAX 9s equipped with a unique door replacement “plug” cannot fly until inspected and, if required, fixed, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. “The FAA is requiring immediate inspections of certain Boeing 737 MAX 9 planes before they can return to flight,” stated FAA Administrator Mike Whitaker.
National Transportation Safety Board investigators were due to arrive on the scene on Saturday afternoon. Social media images showed oxygen masks deployed and a section of the aircraft’s side wall missing.
The fuselage part reserved for the optional door had vanished, leaving a tidy door-shaped gap. The seat adjacent to the panel, which had a regular window, had been empty.
Emma Vu, a passenger on the Alaska aircraft, told Reuters that she awoke to the jet “just falling, and I knew it was not just normal turbulence because the masks came down, and that’s when the panic definitely started to set in.”
Low-cost airlines often install the extra door because extra seats necessitate more evacuation paths. However, those doors are permanently “plugged” or deactivated in smaller planes, such as Alaska Airlines.
Spirit AeroSystems (SPR.N), situated in Kansas, manufactures the fuselage for Boeing 737s after splitting from Boeing in 2005.
A source told Reuters on Saturday that Spirit manufactured and fitted the specific plug door that blew out. Spirit Corporation did not respond to a request for comment.
The FAA stated that its inspection instruction applies to 171 MAX 9 planes but did not specify how many require additional inspections or the exact inspection requirements.
The MAX 9 represents around 220 of the 1,400 MAX jets delivered thus far, and most of them have a deactivated door, indicating that the order may cover them. Boeing Inc stated that it agreed with the FAA’s conclusion.
According to someone familiar with the situation, certain international regulators, including China, have requested information about the occurrence. Bloomberg reported that China, the first country to ground MAX flights in 2019, was considering taking action.
After the crashes in Ethiopia and Indonesia, connected to poorly built cockpit software, MAX planes were grounded worldwide for 20 months.
According to aviation data supplier Cirium, Alaska Airlines (ALK.N) and United Airlines (UAL.O) are the only US carriers to use the MAX 9. On Saturday, Alaska canceled 154 flights, or 20% of scheduled departures, while United canceled 80 flights, or 3% of departures.
Alaska had previously stated that it had voluntarily grounded its fleet of 65 Boeing MAX 9 planes for inspections. It stated that 18 planes were inspected and cleared for flight during recent maintenance, with the remaining inspections expected to take several days.
United said it would cancel 60 flights on Saturday due to the suspension of operations on approximately 45 MAX 9s for inspections.
Boeing is seeking certification for its smaller MAX 7 and larger MAX 10 models, which are required to compete with the Airbus A321neo.
In the years since the crashes, Boeing has experienced several production challenges with the MAX planes. Boeing urged airlines last week to assess all 737 MAX planes for a possible loose bolt in the rudder control system.
FlightRadar24 said Flight 1282 had reached just over 16,000 feet when the rupture occurred. “We’d like to get down,” the pilot said to air traffic control, according to a recording available on liveatc.net.
“We have declared a state of emergency.” We do need to descend below 10,000 feet,” the pilot remarked, referring to the initial staging altitude for such crises, below which breathing is possible for healthy persons without supplementary oxygen.
“I can’t imagine what these passengers went through,” said Anthony Brickhouse, an Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University flight safety specialist. “There would be a lot of wind in that cabin.” It was most likely a violent event, and it was certainly a frightening circumstance.”
The European Union Aviation Safety Agency adopted the FAA MAX 9 directive but noted that no EU member state airlines “currently operate an aircraft in the affected configuration.” A British air safety agency stated that any 737 MAX 9 operator entering its airspace must comply with the FAA directive.
Copa Airlines, a Panamanian airline, announced the temporary grounding of 21 737 MAX 9 aircraft and stated that it “expects to return these aircraft safely and reliably to the flight schedule within the next 24 hours,” with some delays and cancellations likely.