Alaska Airlines says flight disruptions will likely continue as FAA inspections of 737 Max 9 aircraft will ‘take more time’

Jan 6, 2024, 9:28 PM

A passenger sent this picture from inside the aircraft after the landing on Dec. 5, (Kyle Rinker)

(Kyle Rinker)

(CNN) — Alaska Airlines says emergency inspections of its fleet of Boeing 737 Max 9 planes mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration “will take more time,” warning flight disruptions will likely continue after the terrifying incident aboard one of its flights in which a section of the plane blew off the aircraft mid-flight.

The FAA on Saturday had ordered all Boeing 737 Max 9 aircraft to be grounded until they are carefully inspected.

Eighteen of Alaska’s 737-9 MAX aircraft that were operating on Saturday after being inspected have now also been pulled from service “until details about possible additional maintenance work are confirmed with the FAA,” the airline said.

“We are working with the FAA to ensure that our inspections meet their detailed requirements and comply with the EAD, but this process will take more time,” Alaska Airlines said in a statement Saturday night.

Alaska Airlines had announced earlier Saturday about a quarter of its Boeing 737 Max 9 fleet, 18 planes, were cleared to operate because they “had in-depth and thorough plug door inspections performed as part of a recent heavy maintenance visit.”

But the airline later pulled the planes from service after the FAA ordered its emergency airworthiness directive, Alaska Airlines said Saturday night.

The airline had canceled 160 flights – affecting roughly 23,000 guests – as of Saturday afternoon, and more cancellations could be in store for Sunday.

“We are identifying necessary cancellations for tomorrow and expect the disruption to last through at least mid-week,” the airline said in the statement.

An extraordinary grounding

Earlier Saturday, the Federal Aviation Administration ordered the temporary grounding of Boeing 737 Max 9 aircraft, the model involved in an Alaska Airlines emergency landing in Oregon on Friday after a section of the plane apparently blew out in midflight.

The FAA said the planes must be parked until emergency inspections are performed, which will “take around four to eight hours per aircraft.”

“The FAA is requiring immediate inspections of certain Boeing 737 Max 9 planes before they can return to flight,” FAA Administrator Mike Whitaker said Saturday in a statement. “Safety will continue to drive our decision-making as we assist the (National Transportation Safety Board’s) investigation into Alaska Airlines Flight 1282.”

The order impacts 171 Boeing 737 Max 9 jets, the agency approximates.

Boeing said the company supported the FAA’s grounding decision.

“Safety is our top priority and we deeply regret the impact this event has had on our customers and their passengers,” Boeing said in a statement. “We agree with and fully support the FAA’s decision to require immediate inspections of 737-9 airplanes with the same configuration as the affected airplane.”

United also said it has also suspended service on select Boeing 737 Max 9 aircraft to conduct the FAA-required inspection. “We are working directly with impacted customers to find them alternative travel options,” United said in a statement. “Removing certain Max 9 aircraft from service is expected to cause about 60 cancellations today.”

United, which has 79 Boeing 737 MAX 9 aircraft, said it’s working “working with the FAA to clarify the inspection process and the requirements for returning all MAX 9 aircraft to service.”

What happened on Alaska flight 1282?

Alaska Airlines flight 1282, which was headed from Portland to Ontario, California, returned safely to Portland International Airport around 5 p.m. PT after “the crew reported a pressurization issue,” the FAA said.

A panel of the fuselage, including the panel’s window, popped off shortly after takeoff, passenger Kyle Rinker told CNN.

“It was really abrupt. Just got to altitude, and the window/wall just popped off and didn’t notice it until the oxygen masks came off,” Rinker said.

Firefighters were called to assess minor injuries after the landing, and no serious injuries were reported, the Port of Portland Fire Department said.

Several guests onboard the plane required medical attention due to injuries, and all “have now been medically cleared,” Alaska Airlines said Saturday night’s statement. The airline did not provide further details on the nature of the injuries.

A passenger’s video posted to social media shows a side section of the fuselage, where a window would have been, missing – exposing passengers to the outside air. The video, which appears to have been taken from several rows behind the incident, shows oxygen masks deployed throughout the airplane, and least two people sitting near and just behind the missing section.

In a statement late Friday, Alaska Airlines said it was working with Boeing to understand what took place on Flight 1282.

The part of the aircraft involved was the “plug door” – a specific panel of the fuselage near the rear of the aircraft, Alaska said Saturday.

The aircraft is a 737 Max 9 that received its certificate of airworthiness on October 25, 2023, according to the FAA. The airline said Saturday that it had received the aircraft on October 31.

According to FlightAware, the flight was airborne for about 20 minutes. The plane departed from Portland International Airport around 5:07 p.m. local time and landed at 5:27 p.m.

The plane “landed safely back at Portland International Airport with 171 guests and six crew members,” the airline said Friday.

“My heart goes out to those who were on this flight – I am so sorry for what you experienced,” Alaska Airlines CEO Ben Minicucci said in a statement.

‘A really loud bang… and a whoosh noise’

Evan Smith, a passenger on the flight, told CNN affiliate KPTV that he was sitting at least six rows in front of the section where the incident took place. “There was a really loud bang toward the rear of the plane and a whoosh noise and all of the masks dropped,” Smith said.

Emma Vu, another passenger, was asleep and woke up to a sensation of falling and seeing emergency masks drop down, she told CNN in a phone call. She apparently woke up after the panel section popped off; it wasn’t clear how close to the missing panel she was.

Vu said she texted her parents their code word for emergencies to let them know about the incident. “I’ve never had to use it before, but I knew that this was that moment,” Vu said.

People sitting on either side of her comforted her, she said. “The flight attendant came over too, and told me it was going to be OK,” Vu said. “The fact that everyone was kind of freaking out and she took that time to kind of make me feel like I was the only passenger – honestly that was really sweet.”

Vu plans to take a different flight to her intended destination on Saturday morning, she said.

The FAA and National Transportation Safety Board will investigate the incident, both agencies said.

In a statement to CNN, Boeing said it was aware of an incident involving Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 and was working to gather additional information.

Previous issues with Boeing’s 737 Max jets

CNN reported last month that Boeing has asked airlines to inspect all of their 737 Max jets for a potential loose bolt in the rudder system after an airline discovered a potential problem with a key part on two aircraft.

CNN transportation analyst Mary Schiavo said Saturday that issue probably had nothing to do with Friday’s incident. But, overall, the issues raise serious questions about Boeing quality control in manufacturing that the FAA must investigate, Schiavo said.

Boeing’s engineering and quality problems have posed major challenges for the company. The crashes of two of 737-8 Max jets that killed all 346 people on board the flights led to a crippling 20-month grounding of the plane. It also was one of the most expensive corporate tragedies in history, costing Boeing more than $20 billion.

The Max returned to the air carrying passengers in most markets around the globe beginning in late December 2020. But it has encountered other problems, including in April when Boeing said it has discovered a manufacturing issue with some 737 Max aircraft after a supplier used a “non-standard manufacturing process” during the installation of two fittings in the rear fuselage – although Boeing insisted the problem did not constitute a safety risk.

This story has been updated with additional developments and context.

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Alaska Airlines says flight disruptions will likely continue as FAA inspections of 737 Max 9 aircraft will ‘take more time’