FAA approves path for Boeing 737 Max 9s to return to service


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It was a mixed bag Wednesday for Boeing CEO David Calhoun: The Federal Aviation Administration finally approved inspection criteria for the 171 grounded 737 Max 9 planes that, if followed, could return the plane to service. But he also learned that his company is facing another investigation into its safety issues.

The FAA opened its announcement late Wednesday with a stark 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 plane flew off in midair. The FAA said it would not offer any production expansion of the 737 Max lineup while Boeing's safety review continues.

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

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

Each of the 171 grounded planes that took off from Alaska Airlines earlier this month must be inspected, including bolts, fittings and guide rails for the door latch. process This includes tightening fasteners and “extensive inspections of dozens of related components.” ”

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

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On Wednesday, Alaska Airlines said the inspections would take 12 hours and that the first of its 737 Max 9 planes would return to service on Friday. He said the investigations would be completed next week.

United Airlines announced this weekend that it received approval from the FAA to return 79 of its Boeing 737 Max 9 planes, according to a memo from the airline's chief operating officer obtained by CNN.

“We will return each Max 9 aircraft to service once this thorough inspection process is complete,” said Toby Enquist, United's executive vice president and chief operating officer. “We are preparing the aircraft to return to scheduled service from Sunday.”

And Whittaker noted that Boeing is not out of the woods.

“However, let me be clear: This is not a return to business as usual for Boeing,” he said. “We will not accept any requests from Boeing to expand production of the 737 MAX or approve additional product lines until we are satisfied that the quality control issues that emerged during this process will be 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 passengers, just before learning that Boeing faced another investigation.

“We operate safe airplanes,” Calhoun told reporters gathered on Capitol Hill. “We don't put airplanes in the air where we're not 100% confident.”

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

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

After speaking to reporters, Washington Democrat Sen. Maria Cantwell, chairwoman of the Senate Commerce Committee, announced that a future investigation would be needed to examine Boeing's safety record.

“The American flying public and Boeing line workers deserve a culture of leadership at Boeing that prioritizes safety over profit,” Cantwell said in a statement. “I will conduct investigations to investigate the root causes of these security lapses.”

Cantwell said that in his meeting with Calhoun earlier in the day, Boeing insisted on putting 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.

The inability to ramp up production of the Max was a major blow to Boeing's efforts to return to profitability.

Boeing's production of the 737 Max, its best-selling plane, has yet to return to the production rate it was before two fatal crashes in 2019 that grounded the plane for 20 months. to advance its efforts to resume production at a more profitable pace.

Industry experts have raised serious doubts about Boeing's ability to evade investigations. Last week, A Wells Fargo report“FAA audit opens a new can of worms,” ​​Boeing noted. Quality control and engineering issues It has been going on for years.

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

A week ago, Calhoun The company admitted it had made a “mistake”. at a staff-level safety meeting, but he did not specify what the mistake was. NTSB Chairman Jennifer Homandy has demanded that Boeing provide answers to any wrongdoing as part of its safety investigation, separate from the FAA's audit.

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Boeing countered Repeated quality and safety issues Five years into its flight, it has led to long-term landings of some jets and halted deliveries of others.

The design of the 737 Max was found to be responsible for two fatal crashes: one in Indonesia in October 2018 and another in Ethiopia in March 2019. together, 346 people were killed in the two accidents Two planes and one led 20 months landing The company's best-selling jets It will cost more than $21 billion.

In an internal communication released during the 737 Max landing, an employee described the jet as “designed by clowns, overseen by monkeys.”

Late last month, Boeing asked airlines Explore all of their 737 MAX jets After an airline discovered a potential problem with a key component on two planes, a possible loose bolt in the rudder system.

Its quality and engineering problems extend beyond the 737. Boeing has had to halt deliveries of its 787 Dreamliner twice. About a year Starting in 2021 Again in 2023, due to quality concerns cited by the FAA. And this 777 Jet The United flight landed after an engine failure Scattered mechanical debris Houses and ground below.

Two Max variants – Max 7 and Max 10 – are still awaiting approval to carry passengers. Wells Fargo analysts noted that this latest incident complicates that.

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