US regulator investigating Boeing 737 Max 9 after mid-air blowout

The US Federal Aviation Administration is launching a formal investigation into the Boeing 737 Max 9 after a cabin panel blew off an Alaska Airlines flight while in mid-air last week, forcing an emergency landing, the regulator said.

The FAA grounded 171 Boeing aircraft installed with the same panel after the landing, most of which are operated by US carriers Alaska Airlines and United Airlines, pending safety inspections.

It is still unclear when the planes will be cleared to fly again, and the incident is the latest in a series of events that have shaken the industry’s confidence in the aircraft manufacturer.

The FAA said the Alaska Airlines Max 9 incident “should have never happened and it cannot happen again”. It told Boeing of the investigation in a letter on Wednesday “to determine if Boeing failed to ensure completed products conformed to its approved design and were in a condition for safe operation in compliance with FAA regulations” and after learning of “additional discrepancies”.

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Boeing Max plane grounded globally after mid-air blowout leaving hole the size of a door

Boeing Max plane grounded globally after mid-air blowout leaving hole the size of a door

Boeing did not respond to a request for comment.

Both Alaska and United said on Monday they had found loose parts on multiple grounded aircraft during preliminary checks, raising new concerns about how Boeing’s bestselling jet family is manufactured. The two carriers have cancelled numerous flights with the planes grounded.

The carriers still need revised inspection and maintenance instructions from Boeing that must be approved by the FAA before they can begin flying the planes again.

Boeing on Tuesday told staff the findings were being treated as a “quality control issue” and checks were under way at Boeing and supplier Spirit AeroSystems.

United, Alaska find loose parts on 737 Max jets, raising pressure on Boeing

Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun told CNBC on Wednesday that a “quality escape” was at issue in the Max 9 cabin blowout.

The Alaska Airlines flight had taken off from Portland, Oregon, on Friday and was flying at 4,900m (16,000 feet) when the panel tore off the plane, which had been in service for only eight weeks. Pilots returned the full plane to Portland, with only minor injuries suffered by people on board.

Boeing’s manufacturing practices “need to comply with the high safety standards they’re legally accountable to meet”, the FAA added.

US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg declined to say on Wednesday when the FAA may allow the planes to resume flights but said it would only be when safe.

A door plug area of an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 Max 9 aircraft awaiting inspection is pictured with panelling removed at the airline’s facilities at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on Wednesday. Photo: AP

“The only consideration on the timeline is safety,” Buttigieg told reporters.

“Until it is ready, it is not ready. Nobody can or should be rushed in that process.”

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 ended 2023 in second place behind rival Airbus in aircraft deliveries for the fifth year running, after seeing its roughly 50 per cent share of the market eroded by the earlier crisis.

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