On January 5, 2024, a Boeing 737 Max 9 operated by Alaska Airlines experienced a rapid decompression when a door plug blew off the plane in mid-flight. The incident, which forced the flight to return to Portland, Oregon, revealed a serious quality issue with the Boeing jets that had already been involved in two fatal crashes in 2018 and 2019. Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) found that four bolts that were supposed to secure the door plug in place were missing at the time of the flight. This raised questions about Boeing’s production and inspection processes, as well as the oversight of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
The blowout that shook the aviation industry
The Alaska Airlines flight 1282 was carrying 171 passengers and six crew members from Portland to Los Angeles when the left mid-exit door plug, a 63-pound panel that covers the emergency exit, detached from the fuselage and fell 16,000 feet into a backyard in Oregon. The passengers and crew heard a loud bang and felt a sudden drop in pressure and temperature. Oxygen masks were deployed, and the pilot declared an emergency. The flight landed safely back in Portland about 20 minutes later, with no injuries reported.
The door plug was recovered by the NTSB and examined in a laboratory. The investigators observed that the plug had four holes where bolts were supposed to attach it to the upper and lower guide tracks and the hinge fittings on the plane. However, there was no evidence of contact damage or deformation around these holes, indicating that the bolts were missing before the plug moved upward off the stop pads. The NTSB also noted that the plug had a manufacturing defect that caused a gap between the plug and the fuselage, which could have increased the aerodynamic load on the plug.
The NTSB released a preliminary report on the incident on February 6, 2024, but did not specify the cause of the missing bolts or the defect. The investigation is still ongoing, and the final report is expected to be released in a year.
The fallout that followed the incident
The incident triggered a swift response from the FAA, which ordered all operators of the Boeing 737 Max 9 to ground and inspect their planes for loose or missing bolts on the door plugs. Most of the jets have returned to service, but some airlines reported finding quality issues, such as loose bolts, on some of their planes. The FAA also said it would conduct on-site inspections of Boeing’s and Spirit AeroSystems’ facilities, where the fuselage for the Max is produced, as part of an audit of the Max production line. The FAA administrator, Michael Whitaker, testified before a House subcommittee on February 6, 2024, that he would hold Boeing accountable for any noncompliance that contributed to the incident. He also said the agency would not approve any additional manufacturing expansions for the Max until the quality concerns are resolved.
The incident also renewed public scrutiny and criticism of Boeing, which had just resumed deliveries of the Max in December 2023 after a 20-month grounding following the two crashes that killed 346 people in Indonesia and Ethiopia. The crashes were linked to a faulty flight control system that repeatedly pushed the nose of the plane down, overriding the pilots’ inputs. Boeing faced a criminal investigation, lawsuits, congressional hearings, and a loss of trust from customers and regulators over its handling of the Max crisis. The company had to pay billions of dollars in compensation, fines, and settlements and overhaul its safety culture and practices.
The incident also exposed another problem with Max Production. On February 4, 2024, Boeing disclosed that it had to rework improperly drilled holes on 50 incomplete Max planes that were still on the production line, causing a slowdown in deliveries. The company said the problem was caused by its supplier, Spirit AeroSystems, which had also been struggling with financial and operational challenges due to the Max grounding and the COVID-19 pandemic.
The implications for the future of Boeing and the Max
The incident and its aftermath have raised doubts about the future of Boeing and the Max, which is the company’s best-selling and most profitable product. The Max was designed to compete with the Airbus A320neo, a more fuel-efficient and technologically advanced single-aisle jet. Boeing had received more than 5,000 orders for the Max before the crashes, but many of them have been canceled or deferred due to the grounding, the pandemic, and the loss of confidence in the plane. Boeing delivered only 27 Max planes in 2023 and has a backlog of more than 3,000 planes to clear.
The incident has also highlighted the challenges and risks of the complex and globalized aerospace industry, where multiple suppliers and subcontractors are involved in the design, production, and certification of aircraft. The incident has shown that even a small and seemingly insignificant part, such as a bolt, can have catastrophic consequences if not properly installed and inspected. The incident has also underscored the importance of the regulatory oversight and enforcement of the FAA, which has been accused of being too lenient and cozy with Boeing in the past.
The incident has also raised questions about the safety and reliability of the Max, which has been touted as the most advanced and efficient single-aisle jet on the market. The incident has shown that the Max still has potential flaws and vulnerabilities that could endanger the lives of the passengers and crew. The incident has also shaken the trust and confidence of the public and the industry in the Max, which has already suffered a tarnished reputation and image due to the crashes. The incident has also cast a shadow over the future of the Max, which faces increasing competition and challenges from Airbus as well as emerging players such as China and Russia.
The incident has been a wake-up call for Boeing and the FAA, which have to work together to ensure the safety and quality of the Max and restore the trust and confidence of the customers and the public. The incident has also been a reminder for the industry and the regulators of the importance of rigorous and robust design, production, and certification processes, as well as the continuous monitoring and improvement of aircraft performance and safety. The incident has also been a lesson for the public and the media about the need to be vigilant and informed about the issues and developments in the aviation sector, which affects the lives and livelihoods of millions of people around the world.