An investigator examines the fuselage plug area of Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 Boeing 737-9 MAX.
National Transportation Safety Board
- All Boeing 737 Max 9 jets have been grounded for safety checks following a mid-air fuselage blowout.
- US investigators are still probing what happened to cause the sudden depressurisation of an Alaska Air Flight.
- Two carriers say maintenance checks have found more loose bolts.
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Investigators probing the fuselage blowout on a Boeing 737 Max 9 on 5 January determined that the door plug moved upward before ejecting and that fittings holding the part in place came loose, as the two US carriers operating the now-grounded aircraft said their own maintenance checks uncovered loose bolts on the parked jets.
National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy, speaking at a press conference late on Monday, said her agency may broaden the probe into other Max 9 jets to go beyond the Alaska Airlines model on which the accident occurred. A wider inspection would come as Boeing seeks to work with customers to get the aircraft back into service and avoid a lengthy grounding.
“We need to first and foremost figure out what happened here on this aircraft,” Homendy said. “If we have a bigger system-wide, or fleet issue, we will issue an urgent safety recommendation to push for change.”
The discovery of parts that appear to have not been properly tightened on the aircraft intensifies scrutiny of manufacturing processes at Boeing and its key supplier, Spirit AoeroSystems Holdings, which makes the fuselage for the 737 Max. While the NTSB was able to explain in great detail which parts came loose onboard Alaska Air Flight 1282 as a result of the depressurisation, it’s yet to determine why exactly the accident happened.
Alaska Air Group, the airline’s parent company, and United Airlines Holdings said on Monday that initial maintenance checks uncovered loose bolts, with the latter saying there have been signs of “installation issues” in some of its aircraft.
NTSB teams studying the aircraft meanwhile found “no discrepancies” between the door plug that blew off Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 and the intact identical one on the other side of the plane. The door panel has since been recovered on the ground, while other pieces of evidence, such as the cockpit voice recorder, proved unusable.
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As air safety investigators continue to collect evidence, Boeing took the first step toward returning its grounded 737 Max 9 jetliners to service, issuing guidance to airlines on what inspections are needed to prevent another midair fuselage blowout.
“As operators conduct the required inspections, we are staying in close contact with them and will help address any and all findings,” Boeing said in a statement. “We are committed to ensuring every Boeing airplane meets design specifications and the highest safety and quality standards.”
Before the Federal Aviation Administration will allow the planes to return to the air, carriers must “complete enhanced inspections which include both left and right cabin door exit plugs, door components, and fasteners,” the FAA said in its statement. “Operators must also complete corrective action requirements based on findings from the inspections prior to bringing any aircraft back into service.”
Alaska Air Flight 1282 was carrying 177 passengers and crew from Portland, Oregon when the blowout of the panel occurred. The fact there were no people sitting in seats 26A and 26B and there weren’t more serious consequences was just by chance.
Seat 26A was twisted and the head rests on seats 25A and 26A were missing, the NTSB said at an earlier briefing this week. The seat back on 26A was also gone as were some tray tables, although there was no structural damage to the outside of the plane whatsoever.
“My impression when I saw that is it must have been a terrifying event to experience,” Homendy said at that media conference.
The accident has led the FAA to temporarily ground all Max 9 jets for safety checks, affecting 171 aircraft worldwide. Most are in the US, where United and Alaska are the biggest operators.
Investors have dumped shares of Boeing and key fuselage supplier Spirit AeroSystems.
Boeing will hold a company-wide webcast focused on safety on Jan. 9, along with several members of its executive leadership team, Chief Executive Officer Dave Calhoun said in a staff email. The US planemaker cancelled its annual leadership summit that was scheduled for 8-9 January after the Alaska Airlines accident.