AP

Airlines say they found loose parts in door panels during inspections of Boeing Max 9 jets

Jan 9, 2024, 5:12 AM

Image: An Alaska Airlines plane takes off from San Francisco International Airport in 2022 in San F...

An Alaska Airlines plane takes off from San Francisco International Airport in 2022 in San Francisco. (Photo: Justin Sullivan, Getty Images)

(Photo: Justin Sullivan, Getty Images)

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Federal investigators say a door panel slid up before flying off an Alaska Airlines jetliner last week, and they are looking at whether four bolts that were supposed to help hold the panel in place might have been missing when the plane took off.

The comments Monday from the National Transportation Safety Board came shortly after Alaska and United Airlines reported separately that they found loose parts in the panels — or door plugs — of some other Boeing 737 Max 9 jets.

“Since we began preliminary inspections on Saturday, we have found instances that appear to relate to installation issues in the door plug — for example, bolts that needed additional tightening,” Chicago-based United said.

The findings of investigators and the airlines are ratcheting up pressure on Boeing to address concerns that have grown since the terrifying fuselage blowout Friday night. A plug covering a spot left for an emergency door tore off the plane as it flew 16,000 feet above Oregon.

Boeing has called an online meeting for all employees Tuesday to discuss safety.

The company, which has had problems with various planes over the years, pledged to “help address any and all findings” that airlines make during their inspections of Max 9 jets. Boeing has delivered more than 200 to customers around the world, but 171 of them were grounded by the Federal Aviation Administration on Saturday until the door plugs can be inspected and, if necessary, fixed.

The door plugs are inserted where emergency exit doors would be located on Max 9s with more than about 200 seats. Alaska and United have fewer seats in their Max 9s, so they replace heavy doors with the plugs.

The panels can be opened for maintenance work. The bolts prevent the mechanism from moving upward on rollers when the plane is in flight.

During Alaska Airlines flight 1282 on Friday night, roller guides at the top of one of the plugs broke — for reasons the investigators don’t fully understand yet — allowing the entire panel to swing upward and lose contact with 12 “stop pads” that keep the panel attached to the door frame on the plane, NTSB officials said at a news briefing in Portland.

NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy said the safety board was investigating whether four bolts that help prevent the panel from sliding up on rollers were missing when the plane took off from Portland or whether they blew off “during the violent, explosive decompression event.”

The interior of the plane suffered extensive damage, but pilots were able to return to Portland and land safely. Officials say there were no serious injuries among the 171 passengers and six crew members.

The lost door panel was found Sunday near Portland in the back yard of a school teacher’s home. NTSB officials said it will be sent to the agency’s lab in Washington, D.C., for detailed study that might help pinpoint why the plug broke loose.

Alaska and United have canceled hundreds of flights since the weekend because of their grounded planes. Alaska has 65 Max 9s, and United has 79. The airlines waited until Monday before Boeing and the FAA completed instructions for how to inspect their planes.

The jet involved in Friday’s blowout is brand-new, having been put in service in November. After a cabin-pressurization system warning light came on during three flights, the airline stopped flying it over the Pacific to Hawaii. Some aviation experts questioned why Alaska continued using the plane on overland routes until it figured out what was causing the pressurization warnings.

Homendy said Monday, however, that NTSB has seen no evidence to link the warnings with the blowout of the door plug.

The Max is the newest version of Boeing’s 737, a twin-engine, single-aisle plane that debuted in the late 1960s and has been updated many times. The 737 has long been a workhorse for airlines on U.S. domestic routes.

AP

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Airlines say they found loose parts in door panels during inspections of Boeing Max 9 jets