Alaska Airlines says it found many loose bolts on its Boeing 737 Max 9s

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A photo showing some of an Alaska Airlines 737 Max 9. A mid-cabin panel has been replaced with plastic sheeting.
Enlarge / The missing emergency door of Alaska Airlines N704AL, a 737 Max 9, which made an emergency landing at Portland International Airport on January 5 is covered and taped, in Portland, Oregon on January 23, 2024.

PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images

Inspections of Alaska Airlines’ fleet of Boeing 737 Max 9s has turned up “many” loose bolts, according to CEO Ben Minicucci. “I’m more than frustrated and disappointed,” he told NBC News, “I am angry. This happened to Alaska Airlines. It happened to our guests and happened to our people.”

The inspections follow a near-disaster on Alaska Airlines flight 1282 on January 5 of this year, when a blanking plate blew off the 737 Max 9 aircraft mid-flight. The loss of the blanking plate resulted in a rapid decompression of the plane but, fortunately, did not result in loss of control of the aircraft or any physical injuries to passengers or crew.

The following day, the Federal Aviation Administration issued an Emergency Airworthiness Directive that has grounded all 737 Max 9s fitted with mid-cabin door plugs—other specifications of the plane use actual doors at that location to allow for more passengers in the cabin.

In addition to owners and operators of the Max 9 having to inspect their aircraft, the FAA also announced an audit of Boeing’s production line for the jet, “to evaluate Boeing’s compliance with its approved quality procedures.” In addition to investigating Boeing’s manufacturing processes and its production line, the FAA is also turning its attention to Spirit AeroSystems, Boeing’s subcontractor. Meanwhile, the National Transportation Safety Board is conducting an investigation into the incident.

Alaska, which has had to ground 65 aircraft, is not the only airline that’s angry with Boeing. United Airlines is now reconsidering an order it placed for 277 737 Max 10s, which it ordered in 2017 with the expectation that the aircraft would be delivered in 2020. “The reality is that with the Max grounding, this is the straw that broke the camel’s back with believing that the Max 10 will deliver on the schedule we had hoped for,” said Michael Leskinen, United’s CFO.

Boeing once had a stellar reputation in the aviation industry—pilots and aviation enthusiasts would even buy merchandise bearing the slogan “if it ain’t Boeing, I’m not going.” But those days are long gone.

The cause? A new culture of management that took hold after Boeing merged with the failing McDonnell-Douglas company in 1997. Rather than engineering excellence, the new leadership was focused on cost-cutting and growing Boeing’s share price.

Tragically, this was evidenced by a pair of fatal crashes of 737 Max aircraft, one flown by Indonesia’s Lion Air in 2018, then a second operated by Ethiopian Airlines in 2019. As detailed at length by Maureen Tkacik in The New Republic, Boeing redesigned the 737 with larger engines and a new center of gravity to create the 737 Max.

But after pressure from one of its larger customers, Southwest Airlines, which didn’t want its pilots to have to spend time retraining, Boeing chose to essentially hide the fact that the new planes featured a Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System that, due to faulty sensor input, could crash the plane.

NTSB Investigator-in-Charge John Lovell examines the fuselage plug area of Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 Boeing 737-9 MAX on January 7, 2024, in Portland, Oregon. A door-sized section near the rear of the Boeing 737-9 MAX plane blew off 10 minutes after Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 took off from Portland on January 5 on its way to Ontario, California.
Enlarge / NTSB Investigator-in-Charge John Lovell examines the fuselage plug area of Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 Boeing 737-9 MAX on January 7, 2024, in Portland, Oregon. A door-sized section near the rear of the Boeing 737-9 MAX plane blew off 10 minutes after Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 took off from Portland on January 5 on its way to Ontario, California.

NTSB via Getty Images

With regard to this latest 737 Max scandal, in a statement, Boeing Commercial Airplanes President and CEO Stan Deal said, “We have let down our airline customers and are deeply sorry for the significant disruption to them, their employees and their passengers. We are taking action on a comprehensive plan to bring these airplanes safely back to service and to improve our quality and delivery performance. We will follow the lead of the FAA and support our customers every step of the way.”

A more frank explanation of what might have been going wrong on the 737 Max production line in Renton, Washington, can be found in the comments of an alleged whistleblower at Leeham News and Analysis. The whistleblower, who claims to be a current Boeing employee, alleges that the bolts were not installed at the factory and that it was a case of quality control failure.

Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun will travel to Washington, DC, this week to answer questions about the 737 Max 9 for Congress.

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