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Boeing 737 Max 9s: FAA approves a path for grounded planes to return to operations

by Staff

New York

Boeing CEO David Calhoun’s Wednesday was decidedly a mixed bag: The Federal Aviation Administration finally approved a set of inspection criteria for the 171 grounded 737 Max 9 planes that, if followed, could return the aircraft to service. But he also learned that his company faces yet another investigation into its safety issues.

The FAA late Wednesday opened its announcement with a stern warning: “The January 5 Boeing 737-9 Max incident must never happen again,” referring to an incident earlier this month in which part of an Alaska Airlines flight blew off in mid-air. And the FAA said it would not grant any production expansion of the 737 Max lineup while its safety probe of Boeing continues.

But the FAA cleared the way for the planes to return to the air. Airlines, especially Alaska and United, had faced hundreds of cancellations a day because of the grounding.

“The exhaustive, enhanced review our team completed after several weeks of information gathering gives me and the FAA confidence to proceed to the inspection and maintenance phase,” FAA Administrator Mike Whitaker said in a statement.

Each of the 171 grounded aircraft must be inspected, including the bolts, fittings and guide tracks for the door plug, the piece of fuselage that flew off an Alaska Airlines plane earlier this month. The process also includes tightening fasteners and performing “detailed inspections of…dozens of associated components. ”

In a statement Wednesday, Boeing said it will “continue to cooperate fully and transparently with the FAA and follow their direction as we take action to strengthen safety and quality at Boeing. We will also work closely with our airline customers as they complete the required inspection procedures to safely return their 737-9 airplanes to service.”

On Wednesday, Alaska Airlines said it expects the inspections to take 12 hours and for the first of its 737 Max 9 planes to return to service Friday. It said inspections would be completed next week.

United Airlines announced that it has received approval from the FAA to return to its fleet 79 Boeing 737 Max 9 planes this weekend, according to a memo from the airline’s operations chief that was obtained by CNN.

“We will return each Max 9 aircraft to service once this thorough inspection process is complete,” said Toby Enqvist, executive vice president and chief operations officer at United. “We are preparing aircraft to return to scheduled service beginning on Sunday”

And Whitaker noted Boeing itself is not out of the woods.

“However, let me be clear: This won’t be back to business as usual for Boeing,” he said. “We will not agree to any request from Boeing for an expansion in production or approve additional production lines for the 737 Max until we are satisfied that the quality control issues uncovered during this process are resolved.”

Calhoun’s meeting with Washington lawmakers on Wednesday ended with a CEO’s nightmare: He was forced to defend the safety of his company’s planes to travelers, just before he learned Boeing faced yet another investigation.

“We fly safe planes,” Calhoun said to reporters assembled on Capitol Hill. “We don’t put planes in the air that we don’t have 100% confidence in.”

Calhoun acknowledged the seriousness of passengers’ concerns about flying, and he said he came to Washington in the spirit of transparency and openness to help lawmakers better understand the company’s efforts to improve safety.

“I’m here today … to answer all their questions, because they have a lot of them,” Calhoun said.

After speaking with reporters, Washington Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell, chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, announced that she should hold a future hearing to investigate Boeing’s safety record.

“The American flying public and Boeing line workers deserve a culture of leadership at Boeing that puts safety ahead of profits,” Cantwell said in a statement. “I will be holding hearings to investigate the root causes of these safety lapses.”

Cantwell said that in her meeting with Calhoun earlier in the day, she emphasized that Boeing has to prioritize quality and engineering first. After several incidents in recent years, including this month’s Alaska Airlines incident, that commitment has become a significant question.

The National Transportation Safety Board is also investigating the incident.

Not being able to increase production of the Max is a major blow to Boeing’s efforts to return to profitability.

Boeing’s production of the 737 Max, its best selling plane, has still not returned to the rate of production that it had before two fatal crashes led to a 20-month grounding of the plane in 2019. It is not clear when it will be able to move ahead with its efforts to resume production at a more profitable pace.

Industry experts have cast serious doubt about Boeing’s ability to walk away from its investigations unscathed. Last week, a Wells Fargo report, entitled “FAA audit opens up a whole new can of worms,” noted that Boeing’s quality control and engineering problems have been ongoing for years.

“Given Boeing’s recent track record, and greater incentive for the FAA to find problems, we think the odds of a clean audit are low,” the analysts said.

A week earlier, Calhoun acknowledged the company made a “mistake” at a staff-wide safety meeting, but he did not specify what that mistake was. NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy has demanded Boeing provide answers about any mistake it made as part of its safety investigation, which is separate from the FAA’s audit.

Boeing has faced repeated quality and safety issues with its aircraft for five years now, leading to the long-term grounding of some jets and the halt in deliveries of others.

The 737 Max’s design was found to be responsible for two fatal crashes: one in Indonesia in October 2018 and the other in Ethiopia in March 2019. Together, the two crashes killed all 346 people aboard the two flights and led to a 20-month grounding of the company’s best-selling jets, which cost it more than $21 billion.

Internal communications released during the 737 Max grounding showed one employee describing the jet as “designed by clowns, who in turn are supervised by monkeys.”

Late last month, Boeing asked airlines to inspect all of their 737 Max jets for a potential loose bolt in the rudder system after an airline discovered a potential problem with a key part on two aircraft.

Its quality and engineering problems have extended beyond the 737. Boeing also had to twice halt deliveries of its 787 Dreamliner, for about a year starting in 2021 and again in 2023, due to quality concerns cited by the FAA. And the 777 jet also suffered a grounding after an engine failure on a United flight scattered engine debris onto homes and the ground below.

Two Max variants — the Max 7 and the Max 10 — are still awaiting approval to begin carrying passengers. This latest incident complicates that, Wells Fargo analysts noted.

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