Federal regulators on Wednesday cleared the way for Boeing 737 Max 9 jets to fly again — but also said they would impose new limits on production of the troubled planes.
The Federal Aviation Administration grounded about 170 Max 9 planes on January 6 after a body panel separated from an Alaska Airlines Max nine minutes after takeoff from Portland, Oregon, leaving a gaping hole in the side of the jet.
On Wednesday, the agency approved a set of inspection and maintenance procedures and said airlines could resume flying the jets once the investigation is complete. This process involves requiring airlines to inspect certain bolts and fasteners and re-torque fasteners on the panel, known as a door plug, which is placed where the emergency exit door would be if the jet had more seats. .
United Airlines said it would begin inspections of its 79 Max 9 planes under the new guidelines and expected to start using them again on flights on Sunday. Alaska Airlines said on its website It planned to bring “some aircraft” back into service on Friday, with “more aircraft being added every day as inspections are completed and each aircraft is deemed airworthy.” The airline said it expected to complete inspections of all 65 of its Max 9 aircraft in the next week.
In a statement Wednesday, FAA Administrator Mike Whitaker said the agency was confident that, with the necessary checks in place, the planes were safe.
“We grounded the Boeing 737-9 MAX within hours of the incident in Portland and made clear that this aircraft will not return to service until it is safe to do so,” he said.
But while existing planes could begin flying in just a few days, the FAA made it clear that Boeing’s troubles are far from over. In its statement, the agency said it would not allow Boeing to expand production of any of the 737 Max planes — not just the Max 9 but also other versions of the plane.
“Let me be clear: This will not be a return to business as usual for Boeing,” Mr. Whitaker said in the statement. He said the agency would not approve the production increase until it was “satisfied that the quality-control issues encountered during this process have been resolved.”
The FAA order is the latest in a series of problems for Boeing and the 737 Max in particular. The series of fuel-efficient aircraft was intended to help the company regain ground lost to its European rival, Airbus, and it soon became the best-selling jet in Boeing’s history. But crashes in 2018 and 2019 of a different version of the plane, the Max 8, killed 346 people and took the Max out of operation worldwide.
The near disaster in January led to renewed scrutiny over quality control at Boeing and its contractors, including Spirit AeroSystems, a supplier that makes bodies for the 737 Max in Wichita, Kan.
The FAA said Wednesday it would step up surveillance of Boeing and launch an investigation into the company’s practices.
“The quality-assurance issues we have seen are unacceptable,” Mr Whitaker said. “That’s why we will have more staff on the ground to closely investigate and monitor production and manufacturing activities.”
In a statement following the FAA’s announcement on Wednesday, Boeing said it would “continue to cooperate fully and transparently” with the agency and follow its direction.
“We will work closely with our airline customers as they complete the necessary inspection procedures to safely return their 737-9 airplanes to service,” the company said.
sydney amber Contributed to the reporting.