U.S. grounding some Boeing 737 MAX 9 planes pending safety checks

January 7, 2024 9:26 am

[Source: Reuters]

The top U.S. aviation regulator is ordering the temporary grounding of many Boeing 737 MAX 9 aircraft for safety checks following a cabin panel blowout that forced a brand-new airplane operated by Alaska Airlines to make an emergency landing.

“The FAA is requiring immediate inspections of certain Boeing 737 MAX 9 planes before they can return to flight,” Federal Aviation Administration chief Mike Whitaker said on Saturday. “Safety will continue to drive our decision-making as we assist the NTSB’s investigation into Alaska Airlines Flight 1282,” he added, referring to the National Transport Safety Board.

Boeing (BA.N) said it supports the decision requiring immediate inspections of 737-9 airplanes “with the same configuration as the affected airplane.” The pending FAA directive covers 171 planes; it is expected to become effective later on Saturday.

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A piece of fuselage tore off the left side of the jet operated by Alaska Airlines (ALK.N) as it climbed following takeoff from Portland, Oregon, en route to Ontario, California, forcing pilots to turn back and land safely with all 171 passengers and six crew on board. The plane had been in service for just eight weeks.

Alaska Airlines (ALK.N) earlier Saturday voluntarily grounded its fleet of 65 Boeing MAX 9 (BA.N) jets for safety checks.

As of Saturday morning, Alaska said in a statement that it had completed more than a quarter of the inspections and found no issues and was resuming flights with those jets. It did not respond to a request for further comment.

United Airlines (UAL.O) said it had temporarily suspended service on about 45 Boeing 737 MAX 9 airplanes to conduct an inspection required by the FAA. United has 79 Boeing 737 MAX 9 aircraft and said 33 have already received required inspections. The aircraft removals are expected to cause about 60 United cancellations Saturday, the airline said.

Alaska and United are the only U.S. airlines currently using the MAX 9, according to aviation data provider Cirium.

The FAA’s decision falls well short of a full indefinite safety ban comparable to the grounding of all MAX-family jets almost five years ago, but it deals a new blow to Boeing as it tries to recover from back-to-back crises over safety and the pandemic under massive debts.

Boeing’s best-selling model was grounded for almost two years following crashes in 2018 and 2019. The latest mishap also comes as Boeing and a major supplier are grappling with a succession of production or quality problems.

There were no immediate indications of the cause of the apparent structural failure, and no reports of any injuries.

Lawmakers said answers were needed in the wake of the incident. “I’m glad the FAA & NTSB are taking action and investigating this terrifying incident,” said Senator Ed Markey.

According to tracking site FlightRadar24, Alaska Airlines had 108 cancellations on Saturday, or 14% of its scheduled flights.

The National Transportation Safety Board said a team of experts in structures, operations and systems would arrive on the scene later on Saturday to begin an investigation.

Boeing said it was working to gather more information and was in contact with the airline.

Flight 1282 had reached just over 16,000 feet when the blowout happened, according to FlightRadar24.

“We’d like to get down,” the pilot told air traffic control, according to a recording posted on

“We are declaring an emergency. We do need to come down to 10,000,” the pilot added, referring to the initial staging altitude for such emergencies, below which breathing is considered possible for healthy people without extra oxygen.

Social media posts showed oxygen masks deployed and a portion of the aircraft’s side wall missing. Passenger photos appeared to show that a section of the fuselage sometimes used for an optional rear mid-cabin exit door had vanished, leaving a neat door-shaped gap.

The extra door is typically installed by low-cost airlines using extra seats that require more paths for evacuation. However, those doors are permanently “plugged,” or deactivated, on jets with fewer seats, including those of Alaska Airlines.