The Federal Aviation Administration said Thursday it has opened an investigation into whether Boeing failed to ensure that its 737 Max 9 plane was safe and manufactured to match agency-approved designs.
The FAA said the investigation began with the loss of a fuselage panel of a Boeing 737 Max 9 operated by Alaska Airlines shortly after takeoff from Portland, Oregon on Friday, leaving a hole in the side of the passenger cabin. The plane returned to Portland for an emergency landing.
“This incident should never have happened and can never happen again,” the agency said.
In a Jan. 10 letter to Boeing, the FAA said it was informed of additional issues with other Boeing 737 Max 9 aircraft after the Portland incident. The letter did not say what other issues were reported to the agency. Alaska and United Airlines, which operate most of the Max 9s in use in the United States, said Monday that they discovered loose hardware on the panels while performing initial inspections on their planes.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating why the panel, also known as a door plug, flew off the Boeing jet. The safety board is trying to determine whether the bolts holding the panels in place were missing or incorrectly installed. The plug is placed where the emergency exit would be if the aircraft had the maximum number of seats possible.
Before Thursday’s announcement, the FAA was working with Boeing on revising the company’s instructions for inspections of grounded 737 Max 9 planes. The announcement of the modification came after reports of loose bolts from two airlines.
“Boeing’s manufacturing practices require them to adhere to high safety standards, which they are legally accountable for meeting,” the FAA said in a statement announcing the investigation.
Boeing Chief Executive Dave Calhoun on Tuesday promised transparency in the company’s response to the incident. He also said the company was “acknowledging our mistake” without specifying what he was referring to. Boeing declined to elaborate on that comment.
“We will cooperate fully and transparently with the FAA and NTSB in their investigation,” Boeing said in a statement.
United has 79 planes and Alaska has 65, but Alaska has the larger share of cancellations from groundings because the Max 9 makes up 20 percent of its fleet.
The new investigation is the latest blow to Boeing, one of just two suppliers of large planes to most airlines. The company has struggled to regain public trust after two crashes, in Indonesia in 2018 and Ethiopia in 2019, involving a 737 Max 8, which killed a total of 346 people.