The Federal Aviation Administration said Thursday it has opened an investigation into whether Boeing failed to ensure its 737 Max 9 aircraft were safe and manufactured to an agency-approved design.
The FAA said the investigation stems from a Boeing 737 Max 9 operated by Alaska Airlines that lost its fuselage panel shortly after takeoff from Portland on Friday, leaving a hole in the side of the passenger compartment. The plane returned to Portland for an emergency landing.
“This incident should never have happened and it will never happen again,” the company said.
In a letter to Boeing dated Jan. 10, the FAA said it had been notified of additional problems with other Boeing 737 Max 9 planes since the Portland incident. The letter did not specify what other issues were reported to the agency. Alaska and United Airlines, which operate most Max 9 planes in use in the U.S., said they found loose hardware in the panel during preliminary inspections of their planes on Monday.
The new investigation is the latest setback for Boeing, which is one of two companies that supply large planes to most airlines. The company has struggled to regain public trust after two 737 Max 8 crashes in Indonesia in 2018 and Ethiopia in 2019 that killed a total of 346 people.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating why a 737 Max 9 panel, also known as a door plug, flew off the Boeing jet. The safety board is trying to determine if bolts are missing or incorrectly installed that prevent the panel from moving and opening. If the aircraft has a maximum number of seats, the plug is placed where the emergency exit is.
No one was seriously injured in the incident, but aviation experts said if the panel had exploded while the plane was at high altitude, the consequences would have been far worse. Passengers and flight attendants may have been walking around the plane and may not have been able to return to their seats to secure their seat belts while wearing oxygen masks. The Alaska Airlines plane was at about 16,000 feet and still climbing when the panel tore off.
Before Thursday's announcement, the FAA had been working with Boeing to revise the company's procedures for inspecting the 171 grounded 737 Max 9 planes. The announcement of the fix came after reports of loose bolts from two airlines.
“Boeing's manufacturing practices must comply with the highest safety standards that must be met by law,” the FAA said in a statement announcing the investigation.
Boeing Chief Executive Dave Calhoun on Tuesday promised transparency in the company's response to the incident. He added that the company “acknowledges our mistake” without explaining what he was referring to. Boeing declined to elaborate on that comment.
“We will fully and openly cooperate with the FAA and NTSB in their investigations,” Boeing said in a statement.
United has 79 planes and Alaska has 65, but the Max 9 makes up 20 percent of its fleet because Alaska accounts for the largest share of cancellations since landing.
Arjun Garg, the FAA's former chief counsel and acting deputy administrator, said by announcing its investigation into Boeing, the agency has set in motion a process that could lead to enforcement action against the company. In other such cases, the FAA has imposed fines and reached agreements requiring companies to make changes to correct problems regulators have found.
“At the end of the day, the FAA is interested in keeping people safe, not in collecting fines or anything like that,” said Mr. Cork said. “They want to make the system safer.”
Mark Lindquist, a lawyer representing the families of victims of the Max 8 crashes, said the FAA is being more proactive than it has been in the past by quickly launching an investigation into the Boeing 737 Max 9. The FAA takes a much broader view of aviation than the NTSB, aiming to establish the cause of accidents and making recommendations on how to prevent them.
“The FAA believes that the tone of this announcement reflects the potential for loss of life and the seriousness of Boeing's quality control issues,” Mr. Lindquist said.
The FAA had to move quickly because it couldn't afford to have passengers worried about the safety of Boeing planes, said Robert Mann, a former airline executive who is now an airline industry consultant.
Mr. said the deer. He noted that Steve Dixon, the agency's executive and former airline pilot, flew in at the time. The Max 8 before the FAA cleared commercial flights in late 2020 after the jet had been grounded for nearly two years.
“This is a recognition of a very long-standing problem and a very public condemnation,” said Mr. said the deer.
The FAA's investigation gives Boeing and the agency an opportunity to make sure the problems with the 737 Max 9 are isolated or systemic, said Billy Nolan, the agency's former acting administrator. “They know that by the time they pass some of these 171 planes,” he said.
Mr. Nolan said. The fact that airlines have found loose bolts on other Max 9 jets gives the agency enough reason to launch an investigation.