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Hundreds of MAX 9 jets grounded after Alaska Airlines blowout; which carriers are affected?

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has ordered the temporary suspension of some Boeing 737 MAX 9 aircraft after an Alaska Airlines jet was forced to make an emergency landing following a mid-air fuselage blowout. 

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has ordered the temporary suspension of some Boeing 737 MAX 9 aircraft after an Alaska Airlines jet was forced to make an emergency landing following a mid-air fuselage blowout. 

The FAA’s Emergency Airworthiness Directive (EAD) requires airlines to inspect their MAX 9 aircraft before resuming flights, a check the administration says should take four to eight hours per plane. 

The EAD was issued for MAX 9 planes operated by U.S. carriers or within U.S. territory but will impact around 171 aircraft globally as non-U.S. operators follow the FAA order.

The grounding is expected to impact hundreds of flights and tens of thousands of travellers, mostly in North America.

“The FAA is requiring immediate inspections of certain Boeing 737 MAX 9 planes before they can return to flight,” FAA Administrator Mike Whitaker said. 

A 737 MAX jet

“Safety will continue to drive our decision-making as we assist the NTSB’s investigation into Alaska Airlines Flight 1282.”

In a statement, Boeing reiterated that “safety is our top priority and we deeply regret the impact this event has had on our customers and their passengers”. 

“We agree with and fully support the FAA’s decision to require immediate inspections of 737-9 airplanes with the same configuration as the affected airplane,” it said.

Disaster averted

On Friday (local time), an Alaska Airlines B737 MAX 9 carrying 171 passengers and six crew experienced a blowout of a left-sided cabin panel in an ascent from Portland (Oregon). Bound for Ontario (California), the Boeing jet returned to Portland and landed safely. 

According to the carrier, several passengers on board the flight sustained injuries that required medical attention, but all have been cleared.

In a statement before the FAA order, Alaska Airlines CEO Ben Minicucci said the carrier had “decided to take the precautionary step of temporarily grounding our fleet of 65 Boeing MAX-9 aircraft”.

“Each aircraft will be returned to service only after completion of full maintenance and safety inspections,” he said.

“We are working with Boeing and regulators to understand what occurred tonight… the NTSB (The National Transportation Safety Board) is investigating this event and we will fully support their investigation.”

In a later statement, Minicucci said the suspension and compliance work would impact travel plans “for many of our guests”.

“As of 4pm PT today, we have cancelled 160 total flights, affecting roughly 23,000 guests,” he stated.

“We are identifying necessary cancellations for tomorrow and expect the disruption to last through at least mid-week. A flexible travel policy is in place for guests to change or cancel their flights.”

Alaska Airlines says the plane involved in the incident was delivered on 31 October 2023.

Impacted carriers and regions 

A United Airlines 737 Max 8 at Chicago O'Hare International Airport.
A United Airlines 737 MAX 8 at Chicago O’Hare International Airport.

According to Reuters, United Airlines is the only other U.S. carrier to use the MAX 9. It cancelled 115 flights.

Elsewhere, Copa Airlines announced on X it would be temporarily grounding 21 of its MAX 9 jets, while Turkish Airlines has grounded five of its 737 MAX 9s, the BBC reported.

In a statement, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) said it would follow the FAA directive, even though no EU carriers currently use the affected plane configuration, while the UK Civil Aviation Authority said any MAX 9 operator would need to comply with the FAA directive to enter British airspace. 

“We can confirm there are no UK-registered 737 MAX 9 aircraft. The impact on UK operated aircraft and consumers is minimal,” the CAA said on X. 

There are no MAX 9 aircraft operating in Australia, with Virgin Australia and Bonza using the Boeing MAX 8 aircraft only.

“Bonza doesn’t operate any of the 737 MAX 9 aircraft that have been temporarily grounded for inspection,” a Bonza spokesperson said. 

“We have received assurance from Boeing that there is no impact to our fleet.”

“Very scary”

According to FlightRadar24, AS1282 had hit 16,000 feet when the blowout occurred.  

Social media posts show deployed oxygen masks and a missing portion of the aircraft’s fuselage, which is reserved for an optional extra door but which was deactivated on the Alaska Airlines plane. Aircraft with similarly deactivated doors are covered by the FAA order.

The seat next to the blown out panel had been vacant. 

Emma Vu, a passenger on the Alaska Airlines flight, told CNN the experience was “definitely very scary”.

“I woke up to the plane just falling, and I knew it was not just normal turbulence because the masks came down and that’s when the panic definitely started to set in.”

In the spotlight

Last week, the FAA said it would be scrutinising inspections of 737 MAX planes after Boeing asked airlines to check for loose bolts in the jet’s rudder control system after an unnamed international carrier found a bolt without a nut during routine maintenance.

Alaska Airlines was recently named one of the top 10 best-performing carriers in an annual list of the world’s safest airlines.