Alaska and United Airlines canceled hundreds of flights for a third consecutive day on Monday as they were ordered to temporarily ground certain Boeing 737 Max planes after a plugged exit door blew out mid-flight onboard an Alaska Airlines plane late last week. And with an investigation ongoing, it's unclear when those planes would return to the skies.
The Federal Aviation Administration ordered airlines to ground 171 of their Boeing 737 Max 9 jets over the weekend following the troubling incident. An Alaska Airlines plane was forced to make an emergency landing soon after departing Portland (PDX) Friday evening after a panel from the fuselage – an unused space for an exit door that was plugged – ripped away at 16,000 feet. No one was killed, but several passengers were injured as the cabin depressurized.
Photos and video captured by passengers onboard show wind whipping through the cabin and air masks deployed as the plane returned to Portland. Investigators finally recovered the blown-out panel late Sunday – along with several cell phones that were ripped out of flyers' hands.
Carriers from the US to Panama to Turkey are grounding their Boeing 737 Max 9 planes after a door blew out mid-flight, leaving a hole in the aircraft.@AirEVthingTRNSP explains what happened during the Alaska Airlines flight and what this means for Boeing https://t.co/iI7dtqiZ1q pic.twitter.com/bsYx0kcmPF
— Bloomberg (@business) January 8, 2024
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the incident. Meanwhile, the FAA has pulled the entire sub-fleet of the 737 Max out of the sky for inspection. There's no clear timeline for when they'll be cleared to return to the service.
“The FAA’s first priority is keeping the flying public safe. We have grounded the affected airplanes, and they will remain grounded until the FAA is satisfied that they are safe,” the agency said in a statement.
It's far more limited and unrelated to the issues that caused the nearly two-year grounding of all 737 Max planes after two fatal crashes in 2018 and 2019. In this case, only a specific variant of the 737 Max family with a plugged exit door near the rear of the cabin is involved.
But it's another blow to Boeing and the troubled airliner's reputation. Yet again, airlines and their passengers are paying the price.
Among U.S. airlines, only Alaska and United fly those 737 Max 9s. But Aeromexico, Copa, and even Icelandair also fly the jets to and from the States.
The toll was greatest for Alaska and its passengers: The airline's 65 737 Max 9s comprise nearly 30% of its fleet. Alaska has canceled 467 flights and counting just since Saturday – 20% or more of its schedule, according to data from Flight Aware.
“Cancellations will continue through the first half of the week, and we encourage guests with travel plans to continue to check their email and alaskaair.com for updates,” the airline said in a recent statement. Alaska is currently offering free change or cancellation on all flights scheduled through at least Tuesday.
United said Sunday it has parked all 79 of its 737 Max 9s and removed interior paneling so investigators can inspect the plugged exit doors. By 10 a.m. EST, United had already canceled more than 200 flights scheduled for Monday – 7% of its schedule for the day.
“We’re continuing to work with the FAA to clarify the inspection process and requirements for returning all MAX 9 aircraft to service,” the airline said in a statement. “We are working with customers to reaccommodate them on other flights and in some cases have been able to avoid cancellations by switching to other aircraft types.”
All photos courtesy of NTSB via Flickr