US regulator grounds Boeing Max 9 indefinitely as safety checks continue

By David Shepardson and Allison Lampert

Washington: The US aviation regulator has extended the grounding of Boeing 737 Max 9 planes indefinitely for new safety checks and announced it will tighten oversight of Boeing itself after a cabin panel broke off a new jet in mid-flight.

As United Airlines and Alaska Airlines cancelled flights through until Tuesday, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said it would require another round of inspections before it would consider putting the jets back in service.

A passenger’s view from inside the Alaska Airlines aircraft on January 5, showing a blown-out panel.
A passenger’s view from inside the Alaska Airlines aircraft on January 5, showing a blown-out panel.Credit: AP

Under more stringent supervision, the regulator will audit the Boeing 737 Max 9 production line and suppliers and consider having an independent entity take over from Boeing certain aspects of certifying the safety of new aircraft that the FAA previously assigned to Boeing.

The intervention comes after a panel on an Alaska Airlines aircraft, which had been in service for just eight weeks, blew out shortly after take off from Portland, Oregon last Friday.

The FAA said the continued grounding of 171 planes with the same configuration as the one in the Alaska Airlines incident was “for the safety of American travellers.”

The regulator had said on Monday the grounding would be lifted once all planes were inspected before saying more work was needed on planned checks.

On Friday, the FAA said 40 of the planes must be reinspected, then the agency would review the results.

Alaska Airlines and United Airlines, the two US airlines that use the aircraft involved, have had to cancel hundreds of flights in the last week as a widening crisis engulfed the US plane manufacturer.

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Boeing shares closed down 2.2 per cent on Friday and are down nearly 12 per cent since the January 5 incident. Confidence in Boeing has been shaken since a pair of MAX 8 crashes in 2018 and 2019 killed 346 people and led Congress to pass sweeping reforms for certification of new planes.

On Thursday, the FAA announced a formal investigation into the Max 9. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is investigating if the MAX 9 jet in the Alaska episode was missing or had improperly tightened bolts.

FAA administrator Mike Whitaker said on Friday that he saw the Max 9 problems as a manufacturing issue, not a design problem.

“Whatever’s happening isn’t fixing the problem and requires an extensive review,” he said. “We are becoming increasingly focused on the manufacturing process.”

Boeing pledged on Friday to fully cooperate with the regulator.

“We support all actions that strengthen quality and safety and we are taking actions across our production system,” it said in a statement.

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