Following yet another incident, most recently on Friday night, reasonable questions about one of Boeing’s most controversial planes are being asked: Is the 737 MAX safe?
Alaska Airlines 1282 Rapid Decompression Event
On Friday night, January 5th, 2024, Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 had a “plugged” exit door lost during the climb out from Portland, Oregon (PDX) to Ontario, California. The 737 MAX 9 is built large enough that additional exit doors are required for high-density configurations on operators like Copa and RyanAir.
For airlines like Alaska Airlines with lower density, this exit door which fits behind the wing exits and before the aft exits is permanently sealed or “plugged.” This exit door on the port side of the aircraft (left facing the cockpit) separated during flight.
No one was sitting in the seat next to the exit at the time, seat 26A, and no passengers were injured or killed in the event though articles including a child’s shirt and some cell phones were ripped out of the aircraft.
The aircraft was delivered to Alaska Airlines just two months ago. Alaska currently has 80 firm deliveries slated for the next few years with options on another 105. Following the incident, the operator grounded its 737 MAX 9 fleet for inspections (Bloomberg, paywall.) Since then, the FAA grounded all 170+ 737 MAX 9 aircraft in the United States for inspection.
“Hours later, Alaska Airlines was once again forced to cancel flights after concluding that the inspections might not be compliant with an Emergency Airworthiness Directive issued by the Federal Aviation Administration on Saturday.” – Paddle Your Own Kanoo
Cancellations are expected to continue for both Alaska and United throughout the week beginning January 8th, 2024 as the planes are inspected.
Litany Of Boeing Quality Issues
Known for quality, Boeing has long held the position of quality engineering and some of the safest aircraft in the world. The 787 Dreamliner, for example, had issues with its batteries onboard that delayed deliveries for an extended period.
I was staying at the Hyatt Regency Lake Washington at Seattle’s Southport in Renton, Washington right next to the 737 factory when the Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 crash occurred in March 2019. That version was a 737 MAX 8 and the second crash in five months following Lion Air flight 610 which crashed in October of 2018. I marveled that the facility was still open with staff walking around the facility when I would have expected a safety stand-down.
Both of those MAX aircraft incidents involved its new MCAS software forcing the jackscrew to adjust the pitch down the angle of attack against pilot flight control commands. While the Federal Aviation Administration initially defended the safety of the aircraft, it ultimately grounded the aircraft until March of 2020, the dawn of COVID. Following flight data analysis and a review by the National Transportation Safety Board and equivalents worldwide, adjustments were made to the software control system and training requirements for flight crews operating 737 MAX airplanes. Those two fatal crashes took the lives of 346 people.
Just last week, an airline maintenance worker found a bolt that did not have an expected washer before the nut. While that has not caused the fleet to be officially grounded, Boeing recommended operators perform a two-hour inspection of affected aircraft to determine the presence of the washer and make appropriate adjustments.
That particular issue reminds me of the many aircraft crashes that have resulted from failures with the jackscrew, a key control piece for the horizontal stabilizer or elevators. It may not be related, but that’s what comes to my mind.
This plugged door will almost certainly result in future inspections and perhaps a temporary grounding of the fleet until safety and suitability can be confirmed.
For what it’s worth, the manufacturer has struggled to complete certification of the Boeing 737 MAX 10, and 777X (777-8, 777-9, and potentially the 777-10.)
Is The 737 MAX Safe?
Reasonable travelers can ask if the 737 MAX is safe. It’s a fair question at this point. You don’t have to be an alarmist to wonder if Boeing jets are still as safe as they ever were. Even airline customers like American Airlines were hesitant to bring the type back into operation because of concerns about public acceptance.
I have several family members who are nervous flyers, and this incident won’t help. Clients have reached out too, asking if they should switch flights booked well into the fall that are scheduled on the 737 MAX 9. That said, aircraft and the pilots that fly them are always safer after incidents such as these because the proper inspections are performed to ensure they don’t happen again.
It’s fair to ask if Boeing has gone too fast in its race against Airbus for the commercial market. One documentary suggested that it was Boeing’s merger with McDonnell-Douglas that began its engineering and safety downfall.
The MCAS issue has been solved, but the ongoing concern around Boeing’s quality of delivery and the suppliers around the world it depends on is in question. It’s my understanding that both the washer incident and the plugging of this exit door would have been completed by Boeing personnel.
Ultimately, in the case of the loose bolt, a maintenance person located an issue and the market took a reasonable approach to inspection and applying a remedy if needed (in progress.) While the emergency door feels like a quality concern, it should be noted that even if a passenger were seated at 26A, the seat was still intact at landing. If the passenger were to have worn their seatbelt at the time of the incident, which is likely since it was just a few minutes after takeoff, they would likely have still remained there though it’s possible they would have suffered serious injury.
While that’s cold comfort to family and friends, it’s worth mentioning.
Ultimately, one of the most scrutinized aircraft in the jet age will once again go under deep analysis and will be even safer as a result. But it’s perfectly reasonable to ask whether Boeing is still putting out a safe product. Their actions, from the 787 battery issues, to third-party imposter parts, MCAS software issues, this loose bolt, and finally the incident that prompted the latest inquiry, have given reasonable cause of concern. It’s not an issue of the operator nor the missions they fly, but rather the integrity of the manufacturing process. Still, the NTSB is world-class and if they deem it worthy, I’ll be climbing onboard with my family.
What do you think? Will you continue to fly on 737 MAX 9 aircraft?