Boeing checks hit paperwork snag; US investigators search for missing part

Boeing declined to comment on whether it had submitted its inspection criteria to the FAA, which had no further comment.

Alaska Airlines on Sunday cancelled 163 flights, or 21 per cent, and said travel disruptions from the grounding are expected to last through at least mid-week. United cancelled 230 flights on Sunday, or 8 per cent of scheduled departures.

The door plug tore off the left side of an Alaska Airlines jet 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.

“I imagine this was a pretty terrifying event. We don’t often talk about psychological injuries, but I am sure that occurred here,” National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Chair Jennifer Homendy told reporters on Saturday, adding that it was too early to say what caused the event.

The panel, put in place on some planes in lieu of an additional emergency exit, is likely to have landed somewhere in the western suburbs of Portland, but has not yet been found. Authorities have asked the public for help finding the panel.

The accident has put Boeing back under scrutiny as it awaits certification of its smaller Max 7 as well as the larger Max 10, which is needed to compete with a key Airbus model.

In 2019, global authorities subjected all Max planes to a wider grounding that lasted 20 months after crashes in Ethiopia and Indonesia linked to poorly designed cockpit software killed a total of 346 people.

Boeing has delivered 214 of the 737 Max 9, or 15 per cent of the more than 1,300 Max aircraft in service, most of which can still fly.

Friday’s Alaska accident is the second to focus attention on the survivability of cabins coming within days of a collision at Tokyo’s Haneda airport involving an Airbus A350 and a Japanese Coast Guard plane. No airline passengers were killed in either accident, though five crew on the Coast Guard turboprop died.

In the Alaska Airlines emergency, NTSB chair Ms Homendy said the two seats next to the portion of fuselage that blew out were unoccupied. There were some minor injuries, she said.

“We are very, very fortunate here that this didn’t end up in something more tragic,” Ms Homendy said. Parts of the seat next to the fuselage, including the head rest, were missing.

Portland police and fire departments did not respond to requests for comment on the search.

The extra exit door is typically installed by low-cost airlines using more seats that require additional evacuation routes. However, those doors are plugged on jets with fewer seats. To passengers, the area looks like a normal window seat.

Airlines with ordinary doors instead of the special replacement panels can continue to fly the 737 MAX 9 jets.

The fuselage for Boeing 737s is made by Kansas-based Spirit AeroSystems, which also manufactured and installed the plug that suffered the blowout.

But sources familiar with the process said Boeing also has a potential role, since it typically removes the semi-fitted door panel after receiving the fuselages by rail from Spirit. It uses the gap to feed in cabin equipment and speed up production, before completing final installation.

Spirit referred questions to Boeing, which did not respond to a request for comment on who carried out final installation.

Boeing and Spirit have suffered a succession of production snags. REUTERS

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