Alaska Airlines Grounds Boeing 737 Max 9 Fleet After Mid-Air Incident

On Friday, January 5, 2024, an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 Max 9 plane experienced a frightening incident when a section of the fuselage blew out mid-flight, creating a gaping hole on the side of the plane. The flight, numbered 1282, was heading from Portland, Oregon to Ontario, California, with 171 passengers and six crew members on board.

The sudden loss of cabin pressure caused oxygen masks to drop from the ceiling and some passengers to panic. A video posted on social media showed a child’s clothes being pulled off by the force of the air. The pilots quickly turned the plane around and made a safe emergency landing at Portland International Airport at 5:26 p.m. local time.

Alaska Airlines Grounds Boeing 737 Max 9 Fleet After Mid-Air Incident
Alaska Airlines Grounds Boeing 737 Max 9 Fleet After Mid-Air Incident

Fortunately, no serious injuries were reported, and the passengers were accommodated on other flights or given hotel vouchers. Alaska Airlines CEO Ben Minicucci praised the crew for their professionalism and skill in handling the situation. He also apologized to the passengers for the inconvenience and distress caused by the incident.

What caused the blowout?

The cause of the blowout is still under investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which have sent teams to Portland to examine the damaged plane. The FAA issued an emergency order on Saturday, requiring immediate inspections of some Boeing 737 Max 9 planes operated by U.S. airlines or flown in the U.S. by foreign carriers. The order affects about 171 planes worldwide.

The hole in the Alaska jet was located where an emergency exit is installed when planes are configured to carry a maximum number of passengers. Alaska plugs those doors because its 737 Max 9 jets don’t have enough seats to trigger the requirement for another emergency exit. The FAA said it was not aware of any other incidents involving the plugged exits, but it wanted to ensure that they were properly sealed and secured.

Boeing said it supported the FAA’s decision and was providing technical assistance to the investigators. The company also said it was working with its customers to minimize the disruption to their operations. Boeing declined to comment on the possible cause of the blowout or whether it was related to any design or manufacturing issues.

What does this mean for Boeing and the 737 Max?

The incident comes as a major setback for Boeing and its best-selling plane, the 737 Max, which was grounded for almost two years following two deadly crashes in 2018 and 2019 that killed 346 people. The crashes were linked to a faulty software system that repeatedly pushed the nose of the plane down, overriding the pilots’ commands. Boeing had to make several changes to the software, hardware, and training procedures before the FAA and other regulators cleared the plane to fly again in late 2020 and early 2021.

Since then, Boeing has been trying to restore confidence in the 737 Max and deliver hundreds of planes that were ordered before the crashes but remained in storage during the grounding. The company has also faced a series of production and quality problems with the 737 Max and other models, such as the 787 Dreamliner, which have delayed deliveries and increased costs.

The latest incident raises new questions about the safety and reliability of the 737 Max, especially the newer and larger version, the Max 9, which entered service in 2018. Alaska Airlines was one of the first U.S. carriers to resume flying the 737 Max in late 2020, and it has been expanding its fleet of the Max 9, which it says offers more fuel efficiency and lower emissions than older models. The airline has ordered 68 Max 9s and has received 28 so far.

Alaska Airlines announced that it would temporarily ground its entire fleet of 65 Max 9s for inspections and maintenance, following the incident on Friday. The airline said it expected to complete the inspections in the next few days and return the planes to service as soon as possible. The grounding affected more than 100 flights on Saturday, or 15% of the airline’s schedule, according to FlightAware.

Other U.S. airlines that operate the Max 9, such as United Airlines and Southwest Airlines, also said they were complying with the FAA’s order and inspecting their planes. United said it had inspected 33 of its 79 Max 9s and canceled about 60 flights on Saturday. Southwest said it had inspected 18 of its 64 Max 9s and did not expect any significant impact on its operations.

The incident also has implications for the global aviation industry, which has been struggling to recover from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic that has reduced travel demand and revenues. The 737 Max is a key product for Boeing and its customers, as it competes with the Airbus A320neo family of planes for the lucrative market of single-aisle jets that are used for short- and medium-haul flights. Boeing has more than 4,000 orders for the 737 Max from airlines around the world, and it hopes to deliver most of them by 2025.

However, the incident could dampen the demand for the 737 Max and hurt Boeing’s reputation and finances. Some analysts said the incident could lead to more cancellations or deferrals of orders, as well as more compensation claims from airlines that have been affected by the grounding and the disruptions. Some passengers may also be reluctant to fly on the 737 Max, especially after seeing the images of the damaged plane on social media.

The incident could also delay the approval of the 737 Max by some foreign regulators, such as China, which is the largest market for the plane and has not yet lifted its ban on the jet. China has been in a trade dispute with the U.S. and has also been developing its own rival plane, the Comac C919, which is expected to enter service in 2022. Boeing has said it hopes to resume deliveries of the 737 Max to China this year, but the incident could complicate the negotiations and the certification process.

The incident could also affect the launch of the next version of the 737 Max, the Max 10, which is the largest and most advanced model in the family. The Max 10, which can seat up to 230 passengers, is scheduled to make its first flight in the first half of 2024 and enter service in 2025. Boeing has said it expects the Max 10 to be a strong competitor to the Airbus A321neo, which has been outselling the Max in recent years. However, the incident could cast doubt on the performance and safety of the Max 10 and reduce its appeal to customers.

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