United finds loose bolts on Boeing 737 Max 9s after Alaska Airlines incident

Click to play video: 'Door which flew off Alaska Airlines plane mid-flight found in Oregon backyard'
Door which flew off Alaska Airlines plane mid-flight found in Oregon backyard
WATCH: Door which flew off Alaska Airlines plane mid-flight found in Oregon backyard – Jan 8, 2024

United Airlines says it has found loose bolts and other “installation issues” in the door plugs of Boeing 737 Max 9 aircraft during inspections ordered in response to last week’s blowout incident on an Alaska Airlines plane involving the same component.

The airline began inspecting the coverings on all of its Max 9 planes on Saturday, a day after a plug covering an unused exit door blew off Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 shortly after takeoff, leaving a gaping hole in the fuselage.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) ordered all 171 Max 9s operating in the country to be grounded for inspections as a result. United, which operates 79 Max 9 aircraft, said the grounding has forced the airline to cancel 200 flights as of Monday.

“Since we began preliminary inspections on Saturday, we have found instances that appear to relate to installation issues in the door plug – for example, bolts that needed additional tightening,” a United spokesperson told Global News in an email.

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The spokesperson did not say in how many aircraft the airline had identified the issue.

“This is one of my worst fears,” John Gradek, an aviation management expert who teaches at McGill University, told Global News in an interview.

“The best-case scenario … was that the incident on Friday was a one-off and isolated, and that all the other 737 Max 9s would pass inspection with flying colours. That does not seem to be the case.”

Click to play video: 'How grounding Boeing Max jets could impact global travel'
How grounding Boeing Max jets could impact global travel

Boeing said it is staying in close contact with airlines as they inspect the aircraft “and will help address any and all findings.”

“We are committed to ensuring every Boeing airplane meets design specifications and the highest safety and quality standards,” a spokesperson said. “We regret the impact this has had on our customers and their passengers.”

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Alaska Airlines, which operates 65 737 Max 9 aircraft, said it has not yet begun inspections of the fleet.

No one was injured in Friday’s incident, but it marks another blow for both Boeing and air travel at large in the U.S. and Canada as airlines are forced to ground and inspect the Max 9s.

The grounding left nearly 200,000 passengers facing cancellations on United and Alaska from Saturday through Monday, with 171 planes temporarily barred from takeoff.

United told Global News it was able to avoid about 30 cancellations each on Monday and Tuesday by switching some flights to other aircraft types.

No Canadian airlines operate the 737 Max 9, but Air Canada has a codeshare agreement with United that lets passengers book trips with either carrier to about 50 destinations in the U.S. and Canada, allowing travel across the two networks on a single reservation. WestJet has a similar deal with Alaska Airlines.

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It remains to be seen how much of a ripple-effect the grounding and subsequent inspections will have on air travel, Gradek said, particularly in light of United’s discovery of loose bolts.

Click to play video: 'Safety concerns raised after mid-air blowout on new Boeing 737 MAX-9 jetliner'
Safety concerns raised after mid-air blowout on new Boeing 737 MAX-9 jetliner

All 171 of the grounded planes will have to pass inspection before they can return to the skies, the FAA said Saturday.

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But Gradek said the FAA may require every Max 9 to be recertified to show it has either passed inspections or had the necessary work done to address the issue.

“It could take weeks,” he said.

How will Boeing be impacted?

Boeing’s share price dipped eight per cent on Monday to close at US$229.

The company has been struggling with a series of production delays that have hampered its recovery from a lengthy 737 Max 8 safety grounding in 2019. The delays have put Boeing behind its chief rival Airbus in aircraft sales.

The 737 Max was grounded for 20 months worldwide after two fatal crashes in 2018 and 2019 killed 346 people in Ethiopia and Indonesia. The aircraft contained critical flaws in its MCAS anti-stall system that could plunge it into a nosedive if a sensor failed. Transport Canada finally approved the aircraft for travel in early 2021.

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Last month, Boeing asked airlines in Canada and the U.S. to inspect its newer 737 Max aircraft for a possible loose bolt in the rudder control system. The airlines said the inspections would not impact their operations.

Gradek suggested that the company’s recent problems may stem from its decision to keep rolling out new planes based on updates to the 55-year-old design of the original 737 — still the most popular aircraft currently in use — instead of starting from scratch.

“Rather than build a new airplane on a blank piece of paper and build it competitively, Boeing decided to go the poor-man’s route, the quick route, and take an existing airplane and modify it,” he said. “And now it’s caught up to Boeing.”

Click to play video: 'Alaska Airlines passengers survive terrifying incident'
Alaska Airlines passengers survive terrifying incident

He added the existing design may not be able to accommodate the new technology being added to it for the updated models like the Max 9.

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The resulting issues may be creating a stigma in the eyes of air travellers, Gradek said.

“We’re in a situation where there is a potential for a lack of trust on the part of passengers getting on a Boeing airplane, and that, to me, is a worst-case scenario,” he said.

Spirit Aerosystems, the supplier that makes the door plug panel for the 737 Max 9s, said in a statement Monday it was working with Boeing to address the issue with the components.

“Spirit is following the protocols set by the regulatory authorities that guide communication in these types of circumstances and we will share further information when appropriate,” it said.

Shares for the company were down more than 11 per cent Monday, closing at US$28.20.

The mounting issues may further delay the certification of its smaller 737 MAX 7 and larger MAX 10, which are not yet in service. WestJet has already announced it plans to purchase 42 Max 10s, with an option for 22 more.

Click to play video: 'Alaska Airlines forced to make emergency landing after section blows out mid-air'
Alaska Airlines forced to make emergency landing after section blows out mid-air

What issues have been identified?

A diagram of the 737 MAX 9 door plug posted by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board on Sunday shows four bolts — two in the upper corners of the plug and two lower hinge brackets — that secure the plug to the fuselage.

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The plug is further fastened in place by “stop fittings” at 12 different locations along the side of the plug and the door frame. Those components hold the door plug in place and prevent it from being pushed out of the airframe.

NTSB chair Jennifer Homendy said on Sunday no data was available on the cockpit voice recorder of the Alaska Airlines flight because it was not retrieved within two hours.

That’s the length of time per federal law that data can be logged before recording restarts, overriding the previous data. The standard is far below Europe, which requires planes made after 2021 to keep data for 25 hours at a time.

Canada still requires only two hours of recording capacity for cockpit voice recorders.

Homendy urged the FAA and the U.S. Congress to extend the cockpit voice recorder regulations to 25 hours of data for all planes, not just newer ones as the FAA has said it is proposing to align with European rules.

Extending the regulations would require retrofitting all aircraft with new recorders, which the FAA says would cost US$741 million versus US$196 million under incremental upgrades it proposed.

Several pilot groups also oppose longer recordings for privacy concerns.

“(It) would significantly infringe upon the privacy rights of pilots and other flight crew members, as well as drastically increase the likelihood that CVR recordings will be misused or disseminated without authorization,” the union representing pilots for Atlas Air told the FAA last month.

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—With files from the Canadian Press and Reuters

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