Boeing’s new 737 MAX-9 is pictured under construction at their production facility in Renton, Washington, Feb. 13, 2017.
Jason Redmond | Reuters
Boeing‘s plan to get back on solid footing after a series of quality flaws in its best-selling jet suffered a near-disaster Friday when a plane panel blew out during an Alaska Airlines flight, leaving a gaping hole in Row 26.
The Federal Aviation Administration less than a day later ordered a grounding of most 737 Max 9 planes, affecting some 171 aircraft worldwide, so they can be inspected. On Sunday, the the agency said, “they will remain grounded until the FAA is satisfied that they are safe.”
Several factors onboard Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 Friday afternoon — including its lower-than-cruising altitude and unoccupied seats where it mattered most — helped avoid serious injury, or worse, for the flight’s 171 passengers and six crew. The force from the event was so violent it appeared to have ripped some headrests and seatbacks out of the cabin, according to early details of the federal investigation.
The terrifying incident means renewed scrutiny for Boeing, which has been working to get its 737 Max program back on track after two fatal crashes, the Covid-19 pandemic’s supply-chain havoc, and a series of smaller but troubling quality issues in recent months.
The 737 Max 9 flown by Alaska Airlines on Friday was delivered less than three months ago.
“The fact that it was a practically brand-new aircraft is a cause for concern,” said Jim Hall, a former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.
United Airlines and Alaska Airlines, the largest operators of the 737 Max 9, on Saturday said they suspended flights with those planes, forcing the carriers to cancel more than 400 flights.
Boeing’s leadership has spent roughly five years regrouping after the 2018 and 2019 fatal crashes of its smaller and more popular Boeing 737 Max 8, which prompted a worldwide grounding of the both the Max 8 and Max 9, the two types flying commercially.
It successfully won back regulator approval to allow carriers to fly the planes in late 2020 and has won hundreds of new orders for the planes as airlines trip over each other to secure new jets, which are sold out for most of this decade at Boeing and rival Airbus.
Boeing has been trying to ramp up production of the workhorse jet while simultaneously stamping out quality issues such as rudder system bolts that were possibly loose and holes that were incorrectly drilled on certain aircraft. Those defects prompted additional inspections and in some cases slowed down deliveries to airlines.
Boeing still hasn’t won regulator approval for carriers to start flying the smallest Max 7 and largest Max 10 models.
“I’ve heard from a few of you wondering if we’ve lost a step in this recovery,” Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun told Wall Street analysts on an earnings call in October. “You might not be surprised to hear that I view it as exactly the opposite. Over the last…