US FAA launches probe of Boeing 737 MAX 9 after mid-air panel incident

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration is launching a formal investigation into the Boeing 737 MAX 9 after a cabin panel blew off an Alaska Airlines flight last week in mid-air, forcing an emergency landing, the regulator said on Thursday.

The FAA on Saturday grounded 171 Boeing MAX jets with the same panel pending safety inspections. Most are operated by U.S. carriers Alaska Airlines and United Airlines.

The incident was the latest in a series of events that have shaken confidence in the aircraft manufacturer.

Talks between Boeing, the FAA and airlines on revised inspection and maintenance instructions from Boeing that the regulator must approve before airlines can resume flying the planes ended for the day on Thursday without agreement, according to sources with knowledge of the matter.

The FAA said the Alaska Airlines incident “should have never happened and it cannot happen again.”

The agency told Boeing in a letter dated Wednesday that the investigation was to determine if the planemaker had failed to ensure completed products conformed to its approved design and were in a condition for safe operation under FAA rules. The agency cited “additional discrepancies” in other 737 MAX 9 planes.

“We will cooperate fully and transparently with the FAA and the NTSB on their investigations,” Boeing said in a statement.

Boeing shares closed down 2.3% on Thursday and have fallen more than 10% since the incident.


Alaska Airlines and United said on Monday they had found loose parts on multiple grounded aircraft during preliminary checks, raising new concerns about how Boeing’s best-selling jet family is manufactured.

The two carriers have canceled hundreds of flights since Saturday with the MAX 9 planes grounded, including another 230 by United and 152 by Alaska Airlines for Friday.

A growing number of U.S. lawmakers expressed broader concerns about the FAA and Boeing and questions about the planemaker’s manufacturing quality control.

“Given the previous tragic crashes of Boeing 737 MAX aircraft, we are deeply concerned that the loose bolts represent a systemic issue with Boeing’s capabilities to manufacture safe airplanes,” Senators Ed Markey, JD Vance and Peter Welch wrote to Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun.

Senate Commerce Committee chair Maria Cantwell in a letter to the FAA questioned Boeing’s quality control and said it appeared the FAA’s oversight processes “have not been effective” in ensuring Boeing produces airplanes in safe operating conditions.

Reuters reported on Tuesday the planemaker told staff the findings were being treated as a “quality control issue” and checks were under way at Boeing and supplier Spirit AeroSystems.

Calhoun told CNBC on Wednesday that a “quality escape” was at issue that led to the MAX 9 being in the air that suffered the cabin blowout.

In an internal speech to staff on Tuesday, Calhoun said: “We’re going to approach this number one acknowledging our mistake.”

The Stritmatter law firm filed a class-action lawsuit against Boeing on Thursday in King County, Washington on behalf of passengers on the Alaska Airlines flight, citing Calhoun’s admission of Boeing’s “mistake” in connection with the MAX 9.

Daniel Laurence, an attorney for the passengers, said the flight “has caused economic, physical and ongoing emotional consequences.” Boeing declined to comment.

More travelers are checking the model of an aircraft before booking flights after the Alaska Airlines incident, several travel operators said.


The Alaska Airlines aircraft, which had been in service for just eight weeks, took off from Portland, Oregon last Friday and was flying at 16,000 feet(4,900 m) when the panel tore off the plane, blowing open the cockpit door. Pilots returned the jet to Portland, with only minor injuries suffered by passengers.

Boeing’s manufacturing practices “need to comply with the high safety standards they’re legally accountable to meet,” the FAA said. The NTSB is looking at whether bolts attaching the panel were properly tightened or missing.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg on Wednesday declined to say when the FAA may allow the planes to resume flights but said Boeing must ensure its planes are “100% safe.”.

In 2019, global authorities grounded all MAX planes for 20 months after 346 people died in crashes in Ethiopia and Indonesia linked to poorly designed cockpit software..

The crisis eroded Boeing’s 50% share of the passenger jet market and the company ended 2023 in second place behind rival Airbus in aircraft deliveries for the fifth year running.

Airbus on Thursday posted record annual jet orders, booking nearly 2,100 net new orders in 2023 while Boeing booked 1,314 net new orders. Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury told reporters it was closely monitoring the investigation of its rival.

“We will be taking each and every learning and we would expect Spirit to do exactly the same,” he added.

Brazilian airline Gol said quality issues across the aviation industry must be assessed and risk mitigation plans put in place.

Panama’s civil aviation authority said it had temporarily prohibited operations of 21 of Copa Airlines’ MAX 9s.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Marguerita Choy, David Gregorio and Jamie Freed)