FAA orders partial 737 MAX 9 grounding after Alaska Airlines ‘explosive’ decompression incident

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has announced that it will order the grounding of some Boeing 737 MAX 9 aircraft following a recent incident involving an Alaska Airlines flight. The incident occurred when an Alaska Airlines aircraft departing from Portland International Airport experienced a sudden hull breach and decompression. The flight, AS 1282, was bound for Ontario, California, but safely returned to Portland with 171 passengers and 6 crew members.

According to data from FlightRadar24, the flight climbed to an altitude of 16,300 feet, seven minutes after takeoff, before quickly descending to below 10,000 feet and returning to the airport. Photos circulating on social media and local news showed a hole on the left-hand side of the aircraft, aft of the wing. This hole appeared to be the size and shape of an emergency exit “plug,” which is a feature of the 737 MAX 9 to accommodate certain seating configurations. It was later revealed that the seat next to the hole had sustained damage, although it was unoccupied at the time of the incident.

The moment of decompression was described as “explosive” by a source familiar with the matter, and a passenger on the flight mentioned that the force of the incident ripped a child’s shirt off. Photos also showed emergency oxygen masks deployed throughout the passenger cabin. The aircraft involved in the incident, with the registration number N704AL, was delivered to Alaska Airlines from Boeing on Oct. 31, 2023, and had only recently entered revenue service with the airline.

In response to the incident, Alaska Airlines CEO Ben Minicucci issued an apology to the passengers and announced that the airline would ground its 65 Boeing 737 MAX 9 aircraft for inspections. By noon ET on Saturday, inspections on more than a quarter of Alaska’s fleet had been completed, and some planes had already returned to service. The FAA also announced that it would temporarily ground some currently in-service aircraft pending inspections, affecting approximately 171 aircraft globally.

The incident has drawn attention to the Boeing 737 MAX, which was previously grounded for nearly two years following two fatal crashes in 2018 and 2019. The crashes were attributed to a flight control system called the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), which was designed to compensate for the larger engines on the MAX model. The system relied on a single “angle-of-attack” sensor, and if that sensor became damaged, it could cause the plane to erroneously pitch down and potentially lead to loss of control.

Since the grounding of the 737 MAX, Boeing has faced scrutiny regarding its safety practices and records. Other potential manufacturing defects have been discovered in various plane types, including the MAX. While most of these issues were minor or routine advisories, they have further tarnished Boeing’s reputation. Even the most routine incidents involving a MAX aircraft tend to attract significant public attention.

The recent incident involving the Alaska Airlines flight comes just days after the airline took delivery of its first Boeing 737 MAX 8, a smaller version of the jet. The FAA’s decision to ground some 737 MAX 9 aircraft is a precautionary measure to ensure the safety of passengers and address any potential issues that may arise. Boeing is working closely with Alaska Airlines and the National Transportation Safety Board to investigate the incident and determine the cause of the hull breach and decompression.

In conclusion, the grounding of some Boeing 737 MAX 9 aircraft by the FAA is a response to the recent incident involving an Alaska Airlines flight. This incident has once again brought attention to the safety of the 737 MAX model and Boeing’s manufacturing practices. The inspections and investigations will help determine the cause of the incident and ensure the safety of passengers flying on these aircraft.

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