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FAA Orders Grounding of 737 MAX 9 Aircraft

This is the latest in the 737 MAX family's string of newsworthy groundings

An Alaska Airlines 737 MAX 9 sits in Seattle prior to delivery. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | William Derrickson)

The Federal Aviation Administration has ordered the temporary grounding of 171 Boeing 737 MAX 9 jets after a decommissioned emergency door blew out on an Alaska Airlines flight last night. The agency is calling for the inspection of these aircraft before return to service.

“The FAA is requiring immediate inspections of certain Boeing 737 Max 9 planes before they can return to flight,” FAA Administrator Mike Whitaker said. “Safety will continue to drive our decision-making as we assist the NTSB’s investigation into Alaska Airlines Flight 1282.”

The groundings will most heavily affect United Airlines, which operates 80 737 MAX 9s, and Alaska, which flies 60 of the type.

Alaska’s Self-Grounding

Alaska Airlines had already self-grounded its fleet of 737 MAX 9 aircraft, which operate roughly a quarter of its flights. The decision caused the cancellation of over 100 flights early Saturday, or about 13% of its schedule; the carrier surely has other aircraft that can cover some of flights that would have otherwise been canceled. Alaska expects inspections to take a few days to complete, and aircraft are currently expected to be back flying soon.

“Each aircraft will be returned to service only after completion of full maintenance and safety inspections,” said Alaska Air Group CEO Ben Minicucci. “I am personally committed to doing everything we can to conduct this review in a timely and transparent way.”

Passengers traveling on Alaska Airlines are currently allowed to change or cancel their trips without an extra fee, and the carrier will move affected passengers onto the next available flight.

An Alaska Air 737 MAX 9 decorated with Orca whales.
(Photo: AirlineGeeks | Katie Zera)

It is unclear how or why the emergency door, and its associated wall paneling, detached mid-flight. However, we already know that the Alaska aircraft in question had encountered multiple pressurization issues on January 4, the day before Friday’s explosive decompression. That caused Alaska to revoke the aircraft’s ETOPs approval, which allows the plane to fly over large bodies of water.

“My heart goes out to those who were on this flight – I am so sorry for what you experienced,” Minicucci said in a statement about the failed door. “I am so grateful for the response of our pilots and flight attendants.”

What Could Have Caused The Incident?

Focus is already beginning to center on a plug that seals the emergency door halfway between the wing and the aft part of the cabin. Use of the door is required only for operators who have at least 200 seats on the 737 MAX 9. Alaska does not, so they cover the door with wall paneling to prevent it from ever being opened.

This plug is also present on the 737-900ER, part of the 737 NG line that precedes the MAX, as well as the 737 MAX 8-200, which is used for high-density flights, and the MAX 10, which is undergoing testing for certification to enter service.

The plug is not present on the smaller 737 MAX 7 or 737 MAX 8 fleets.

An Alaska Airlines 737 MAX 9 on a test flight at Paine Field.
(Photo: AirlineGeeks | Katie Zera)

There is no explanation as to why the plug might have failed on Alaska 1282. The aircraft structure around the blown door appears intact in passenger photos and videos; the brackets that latch the plug appear clean with no visible breaks or deformations.

The potential for metal fatigue will be explored in the structures around the missing door. The NTSB will need to search for where the door fell onto Portland to get a more holistic picture of what happened.

The 737 MAX’s Storied History

The traveling public is certainly aware of the last time the 737 MAX encountered a mass grounding. After multiple crashes involving the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), Boeing took years to update the hardware and software that prevents stalls on the airplane family.

A go-team from the National Transportation Safety Board has been dispatched to Oregon to investigate the Alaska Airlines blowout. Though nobody was hurt, this incident will do further damage to the 737 MAX’s relatively poor reputation. Regardless of said reputation, the type is unlikely to disappear for decades. It is Boeing’s most popular commercial aircraft, representing 20% of all Boeing orders since the 1950s, and the backlog is years long.

This incident came soon after Boeing asked the FAA to inform operators of a possible defect with missing bolts on 737 MAX jets. It is unclear at this time whether a missing bolt was to blame for the Alaska incident last night, though investigators will certainly be highly focused on the seal intended to keep the emergency door in place.

How this incident will play into the entire 737 MAX saga has yet to be seen. One possible fix would be a requirement to retrofit emergency door seals to prevent further incidents like this in the future. However, it is also possible that Boeing, the NTSB, or an airline will identify a systemic issue that must be remedied.

John McDermott


  • John McDermott

    John McDermott is a student at Northwestern University. He is also a student pilot with hopes of flying for the airlines. A self-proclaimed "avgeek," John will rave about aviation at length to whoever will listen, and he is keen to call out any airplane he sees, whether or not anyone around him cares about flying at all. John previously worked as a Journalist and Editor-In-Chief at Aeronautics Online Aviation News and Media. In his spare time, John enjoys running, photography, and watching planes approach Chicago O'Hare from over Lake Michigan.

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