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Boeing CEO acknowledges ‘mistake’ related to terrifying Alaska Airlines flight

Jan 9, 2024, 4:27 PM

Investigation involving Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 on a Boeing 737-9 MAX in Portland, Oregon. (Nat...

Investigation involving Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 on a Boeing 737-9 MAX in Portland, Oregon. (National Transportation Safety Board)

(National Transportation Safety Board)

New York (CNN) Boeing CEO David Calhoun acknowledged the company’s “mistake” in the wake of the Alaska Airlines incident at a staff-wide “safety meeting” Tuesday.

“We’re going to approach this number one acknowledging our mistake,” Calhoun told staff, according to a partial readout of the meeting shared with CNN. “We’re going to approach it with 100% and complete transparency every step of the way. We are going to work with the NTSB who is investigating the accident itself to find out what the cause is.”

A company source told CNN that the company believes “the mistake in question” was introduced in the aircraft’s manufacturing supply chain, however it is not yet known if Calhoun identified any specific error during the presentation.

On Friday, an Alaska Airlines flight carrying 177 people made an emergency landing shortly following takeoff from Portland, Oregon, after part of the wall of a weeks-old 737 Max 9 aircraft detached and left a gaping hole in the side of the plane. On Saturday, the Federal Aviation Administration ordered most Boeing 737 Max 9 aircraft to be temporarily grounded as regulators and Boeing investigate the cause of the incident. The order applies to some 171 planes around the world.

Remarkably, no one was killed or seriously injured in Friday’s midflight accident, which was partially caught on horrifying video clips by fellow passengers.

The source said the meeting also included a reminder of the seriousness of the situation. Employees were told that the company’s Chief Safety Officer is now in charge of the 737 Max fleet, the source said. Mike Delaney is Boeing’s Chief Aerospace Safety Officer.

The meeting, which took place at noon Pacific from the 737 Max factory in Renton, Washington, also included an expression of confidence in “Boeing, the airplane, and (Boeing’s) employees,” the source said.

The meeting praised the actions of the flight crew as well as Alaska Airlines for their handling of the situation, the source added.

The company pledged to work with the FAA to ensure there are proper inspections. On Tuesday, the FAA said that Boeing’s plan for the inspection of door plugs on 737 Max 9 aircraft required revisions, and the aircraft will remain grounded in the meantime.

“Boeing offered an initial version of instructions yesterday which they are now revising because of feedback received in response,” the FAA said in a statement. “Upon receiving the revised version of instructions from Boeing the FAA will conduct a thorough review.”

During the meeting, Boeing also pledged to work with the NTSB as it tries to determine what took place, the source said.

Calhoun appeared to address some of the images that emerged from the accident during his remarks to employees Tuesday, including some that showed a gaping hole in the side of the plane.

“When I got that picture, all I could think about – I didn’t know what happened so whoever was supposed to be in the seat next to that hole in the airplane,” Calhoun said. “I’ve got kids, I’ve got grandkids and so do you. This stuff matters. Every detail matters.”

Of the ongoing investigation, Calhoun added that he “trust[s] every step they take, and they will get to a conclusion.”

The accident, meanwhile, is also garnering the attention of lawmakers. In a statement on Tuesday, Sen. J.D. Vance called for the Senate Commerce Committee to convene a hearing to “evaluate incidents involving the 737 MAX, Boeing’s engineering and safety standards, and the quality of oversight provided by the FAA and other relevant government agencies.”

“I hope such a hearing will occur as soon as possible,” Vance, a Republican from Ohio, added.

President Joe Biden is personally tracking the grounding of many Boeing 737 MAX 9 planes for inspection following the dramatic emergency landing of an Alaska Airlines flight last week, the White House said Tuesday, as investigations continue.

The White House is “relieved” that all passengers and crew of Alaska Airlines flight 1282 are safe, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said, noting that the aircraft will remain grounded until Federal Aviation Administration operators “complete enhanced inspections.”

The latest on the investigation

Exactly what led to a hole the size of a refrigerator to suddenly blow open on the passenger aircraft on Friday is still being investigated. A preliminary report is expected in three to four weeks, National Transportation Safety Board spokesperson Eric Weiss said.

The NTSB said Monday night that it continues to recover objects that blew out of the plane. On Sunday, a Portland schoolteacher found a piece of the aircraft’s fuselage that had landed in his backyard and reached out to the agency. Two cell phones that were likely flung from the hole in the plane were also found in a yard and on the side of the road and turned over to investigators.

NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy also told reporters over the weekend that Alaska Airlines had previously restricted the aircraft in Friday’s incident from flying over the ocean after the plane’s automatic pressurization warning light came on three times in the past month. Homendy, however, emphasized during a press conference late Monday night that the NTSB has “no indications whatsoever that this correlated in any way” to the incident that led to a piece of the plane from blowing off.

Homendy has said that partly complicating the investigation is the loss of critical cockpit audio recordings, because of a device setting that overrides recordings after collecting two hours of audio. She advocated for the FAA and Congress to require 24-hour recordings of cockpit audio to be retained in all aircraft.

Still, as investigators continue to comb through data, eyewitness accounts and examine the jet itself, the early details from the investigation are harrowing. The damage extended to several rows on the plane. The two seats next to the detached door plug just happened to be empty when the blowout happened, but had their headrests torn off, according to Homendy.

Video from the incident “looks very calm, but I’m sure it was completely chaotic,” Homedy said.

In a company statement on Saturday, Boeing said it agreed with the FAA’s decision to ground most 737 Max 9 planes while they are inspected, emphasizing that “safety is our top priority.” On Monday, Boeing said it sent airlines and maintenance companies instructions on how to inspect the planes.

Also on Monday, United Airlines – which has more Max 9s than any other US carrier – said it found loose door plug bolts on an undisclosed number of its Boeing 737 Max 9 aircraft as it was performing the FAA-mandated inspections of the jets. Alaska Airlines also said Monday it found loose hardware on some of its 737 Max 9 planes during inspections.

Boeing’s fall from grace

Friday’s high-profile incident is putting a renewed spotlight on Boeing’s fall from grace in recent years. The company has faced repeated quality and safety issues with its aircraft over the past five years, leading to the long-term grounding of some of its jets and the halt in deliveries of others.

The most glaring quality problems for Boeing came with the 737 Max’s design, which was judged to be responsible for two fatal crashes: one in Indonesia in October 2018 and the other in Ethiopia in March 2019. Together, the two crashes killed all 346 people aboard the two flights and led to a 20-month grounding of the company’s best-selling jets, which cost it more than $21 billion. But the design flaws that caused the crashes brought to light questions about the decision making process at Boeing. Internal communications released during the 737 Max grounding showed one employee describing the jet as “designed by clowns, who in turn are supervised by monkeys.”

The latest safety saga also puts a spotlight on the fact that Boeing most likely doesn’t have to worry about being forced out of business anytime soon, no matter how extensive its mistakes. Boeing and Airbus are the only two major global aviation companies, neither company could accommodate all commercial aircraft demand alone, and both have a backlog of orders stretching back years.

Boeing’s stock has shed some 8% on Monday as investors grow concerned about more damage to its business.

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Boeing CEO acknowledges ‘mistake’ related to terrifying Alaska Airlines flight