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Boeing’s 737 Max 9 and the Alaska airline grounding: what you need to know

Boeing’s 737 Max 9 and the Alaska airline grounding: what you need to know

Friday’s emergency landing of an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 Max 9 in Portland, Oregon, led the Federal Aviation Administration to order some U.S. airlines to stop using certain Max 9 planes until ‘they are inspected. The order covers approximately 171 planes owned by Alaska, United and other airlines. The episode also raised troubling new questions about the safety of a work plane plagued by years of problems and multiple fatal accidents.

No one was seriously injured in Friday’s incident. The airliner returned to Portland Airport shortly after a piece of the plane’s body broke off in mid-flight, leaving a door-sized hole in the side of the plane. plane.

A few hours after the episode, Alaska Airlines said it would ground all 65 Boeing 737 Max 9s in its fleet until mechanics could carefully inspect each plane. Later Saturday, the FAA ordered the temporary grounding of planes in some other airlines’ fleets. United Airlines, with 79 Max 9s, had the highest number of planes hit.

On Saturday evening, Jennifer Homendy, chairwoman of the National Safety Transportation Board, the agency responsible for investigating plane crashes, said a plug on one of the plane’s unnecessary emergency doors had torn off 10 minutes from the airport while the plane was at an altitude of approximately 16,000 feet.

Ms Homendy said investigators would compare the stopper from a second emergency door, at the opposite end of the driveway, with the one that exploded in the hope of determining what went wrong. She said investigators would also look at things like the plane’s pressurization system and maintenance records.

Jessica Kowal, a Boeing spokeswoman, said in a statement: “We agree and fully support the FAA’s decision to require immediate inspections of 737-9 aircraft with the same configuration as the affected aircraft. »

And while the particular problem that led to Friday’s scare seems unique, Boeing’s 737 Max jetliners have perhaps the most disturbing history of any modern airliner currently in service.

Alaska Airlines Flight 1282, which was carrying 171 passengers and six crew members bound for Ontario, California, made an emergency landing at Portland Airport Friday evening, 20 minutes after takeoff.

Passengers on the flight reported hearing a loud noise before noticing that a section of the fuselage had opened mid-flight.

In the minutes before the emergency landing, with oxygen masks hanging from the ceiling and the wind howling through the gaping hole in the wall, passengers could not hear the urgent announcements made over the public address system .

The plane involved in Friday’s incident was virtually new by commercial airline standards. It was first recorded in November and recorded only 145 flights.

Two crashes involving Boeing 737 Max 8s killed a total of 346 people in less than five months in 2018 and 2019. Both crashes were later linked to a faulty system that overrode the pilot’s controls.

These accidents led to the global grounding of Boeing 737 Max planes, grounding hundreds of planes on tarmacs around the world for nearly two years while engineers worked to identify and fix the problem so regulators could recertify the planes.

The first accident occurred in October 2018, when a passenger plane carrying 189 people from Jakarta, Indonesia, crashed into the Java Sea just minutes after takeoff. Four months later, another 737 Max, that of Ethiopian Airlines, crashed just after takeoff while en route to Addis Ababa, killing all 157 people on board, including the eight crew members of the flight.

Days later, President Donald J. Trump announced that U.S. regulators would temporarily halt all flights of the Boeing 737 Max while investigators and Boeing sought to determine how a software system meant to make the plane safer had instead played a role. role in disasters. .

U.S. regulators were among the last to ground the model, but they did so after pressure mounted and 42 other countries took drastic measures to prevent further crashes.

Reporting by the New York Times and others ultimately revealed that competitive pressure, faulty design and problematic oversight all played a role in the troubling history of the plane, Boeing’s best-selling plane to date. day, and a plane with hundreds of billions of dollars in advance airline orders. all over the world when he was grounded.

Boeing agreed to pay $2.5 billion in a 2021 settlement with the Justice Department to resolve a criminal charge that it conspired to defraud the Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates the company and assesses his planes.

In 2022, Boeing paid $200 million more in a settlement with U.S. securities regulators over accusations the company misled investors by suggesting human error was at fault. the origin of the two fatal accidents and omitting society’s concerns about the plane.

By the time the planes were recertified, 20 months after the crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia, Boeing estimated the crisis had cost the company $20.7 billion.

Part of Boeing’s single-aisle 737 Max series, the Max 9 can carry up to 220 passengers, depending on its seat configuration. United Airlines has 79 Max 9s in service, the most of any airline, according to Cirium, an aviation analytics firm. A total of 215 Max 9 aircraft are in service worldwide, Cirium said. United and Alaska Airlines own about a third.

Other airlines flying the Max 9 include Copa Airlines of Panama and Aeromexico in the Americas, SCAT Airlines of Kazakhstan, Iceland Air, Turkish Airlines and FlyDubai.

A FlyDubai spokesperson said the three 737 Max 9 airliners in its fleet carried out the necessary safety checks over the past 24 months and that the company was awaiting guidance from Boeing before carrying out further inspections.

Major aviation safety incidents, including those that do not result in injury or loss of life, generally result in immediate reviews by regulators in the United States, the European Union and China.

Investigators are looking at everything: the plane’s design; its manufacturing, maintenance and inspection history; weather report; air traffic control decisions; and the actions of the flight crew. They look for the causes of an incident as well as lessons for aviation safety.

In the case of the Alaska Airlines incident, the plane was manufactured in the United States and lost a fuselage section during a flight within the United States. The National Transportation Safety Board will therefore be the lead agency investigating the incident.

Security investigations can take several months. They involve technical experts from the government, the airline that operated the plane, unions and the plane’s manufacturer – in this case, Boeing.

The FAA does not need to wait for the safety board’s report before deciding whether to ground a plane model or order rapid inspections. Either way, airlines usually rush to check their planes as soon as they know what to look for.

Grounding one of the industry’s main workhorses could put a strain on travelers as airlines sometimes have to cancel flights because they don’t have planes to replace the grounded model on the ground.

As of Sunday afternoon, United had canceled 253 flights, or 9% of its schedule for the day, according to FlightAware, a flight tracking website, although some of those cancellations could also be due to bad winter weather in the Northeast. East.

Alaska Airlines had canceled 163 flights, or 21 percent of its schedule, as of Sunday afternoon.

Alaska has published a “system-wide flexible travel policy» allowing passengers to cancel or change their flights without incurring fees. The airline encourages travelers to use the Alaska website or app themselves, rather than calling the airline’s customer service.

Updates on United flight status can be found online. If a flight experiences significant delays, United waive modification fees or provide a travel credit or refund. The airline has not issued a specific waiver relating to aircraft inspections that would further relax its policies.

And if a flight is delayed or canceled, the traveler may be entitled to compensation, depending on the circumstances.

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Mattie B. Jiménez

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