737 MAX 9 To Return To Skies Following FAA Approved Inspection Regime

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Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 MAX 9

“The January 5 Boeing 737-9 MAX incident must never happen again.”

That’s according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in their latest announcement outlining required inspection and maintenance processes for the return of the 171 affected Boeing 737 MAX 9s under its jurisdiction.

Based on data collected from 40 inspected MAX 9s fitted with door plugs, the FAA approved a detailed set of inspection and maintenance instructions on January 24 needed to be carried out on each of the affected aircraft. Once completed to spec, each aircraft will be allowed to re-enter commercial service.

The issue appears to be related to lapses during the assembly process, rather than with the actual design of the door plug itself. Once these new checks and fixes are completed, the FAA said the door plugs on the MAX 9 “will be in compliance with the original design which is safe to operate.”

The enhanced maintenance process will require:

  • An inspection of specific bolts, guide tracks and fittings
  • Detailed visual inspections of left and right mid-cabin exit door plugs and dozens of associated components
  • Retorquing fasteners
  • Correcting any damage or abnormal conditions

737 MAX 9s to return to service once inspections and maintenance are completed

This is definitely good news for operators. Both United Airlines and Alaska Airlines have indicated that their fleet of MAX 9s will soon return to service once these checks are completed. Alaska is prepping to return its first MAX 9 as early as Friday January 26, saying:

“Each of our aircraft will only return to service once the rigorous inspections are completed and each aircraft is deemed airworthy according to the FAA requirements. We have 65 737-9 MAX in our fleet. The inspections are expected to take up to 12 hours for each plane.

“Following these inspections by our skilled Alaska Maintenance technicians, we expect to bring our first few planes back into scheduled commercial service on Friday, Jan. 26.

“At the request of the FAA, our Maintenance technicians completed preliminary inspections on 20 of our 737-9 MAX aircraft two weeks ago. The data we collected was provided to the FAA for further analysis. Those findings informed the FAA’s final orders for thorough inspections of the door plug on each of our 737-9 MAX aircraft. We are now ready to implement those final orders.

“The first of our 737-9 MAX will resume flying on Friday, Jan. 26, with more planes added every day as inspections are completed and each aircraft is deemed airworthy. We expect inspections on all our 737-9 MAX to be completed over the next week. 

“We greatly appreciate the FAA’s diligence and commitment to safety to get the 737-9 MAX safely back in the air.”

In a separate statement to media, United said it could see the return of its first MAX 9 as early as Sunday January 28, once the appropriate checks and maintenance orders are carried out.

Boeing not off the hook

Photo: Greg Gayden/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0 Deed)

Even though the door plug matter seems to be a simple case of poor assembly, it’s not back to business for Boeing as they are now under enormous pressure to re-evaluate its quality control processes. The FAA will increase its oversight into the aerospace’s activities to include:

  • Capping expanded production of new Boeing 737 MAX aircraft to ensure accountability and full compliance with required quality control procedures.
  • Launching an investigation scrutinizing Boeing’s compliance with manufacturing requirements. The FAA will use the full extent of its enforcement authority to ensure the company is held accountable for any non-compliance.     
  • Aggressively expanding oversight of new aircraft with increased floor presence at all Boeing facilities.
  • Closely monitoring data to identify risk
  • Launching an analysis of potential safety-focused reforms around quality control and delegation.

In a statement, the FAA’s Administrator Mike Whitaker said:

“The quality assurance issues we have seen are unacceptable. That is why we will have more boots on the ground closely scrutinizing and monitoring production and manufacturing activities.”

Outside of these approved processes, the FAA will continue to work with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) regarding the full investigation of the Alaska Airlines flight 1282 incident.

Boeing themselves have also launched the first in a series of “stand down” sessions in which it will take time away from production “so employees can take part in working sessions focused on quality.” The sessions aim to identify issues with its production and assembly processes, as well as develop plans to correct these deficiencies.

While we will have to wait for the final report to determine who was really at fault, a supposed whistleblower is claiming that incident was as a result of Boeing mechanics (and not Spirit AeroSystems) failing to properly reinstall the door plug after it was removed for repairs on the final assembly line.

Public trust eroded

There has been a renewed sense of fear following the January 5th incident. Aggregate booking site Kayak even noted seeing a 15x increase in bookings that specifically excluded the MAX line up from its searches. Boeing obviously has their work cut out for them as they now have to re-establish trust in an airplane model that has been marred by quality control and development controversy.

[Featured Photo: Alaska Airlines]

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