Boeing's Wound Deepen: Loose Bolts On Several United 737 MAX Jets

The crisis surrounding Boeing's 737 MAX escalated when United Airlines discovered loose bolts on several grounded MAX 9 planes, leading to increased scrutiny of the manufacturing process of Boeing's most popular jet series. After a panel detached from an Alaska Airlines-operated flight shortly after departure from a Portland, Oregon airport, causing the pilots to make an emergency landing, U.S. regulators grounded 171 of the 737 Max 9 aircraft. United, one of two U.S. airlines operating this model, reported finding bolts that required tightening on multiple panels during their inspections, intensifying concerns about the production of the 171 grounded MAX 9 jets. A source informed media that United has identified nearly 10 planes with loose bolts, a number that may rise. This information was first reported by The Air Current. 


Several industry insiders have noted that passengers are beginning to express safety concerns about the aircraft, even though only a few airlines use the MAX 9. Persistent worries could put additional pressure on Boeing, which has been plagued by numerous production problems since the grounding of the 737 MAX series in early 2019. "This is now a fleet issue. This is a quality control issue," stated U.S. aircraft safety expert John Cox. Investigators announced on Sunday that it was too early to identify the cause. Boeing's stock fell 8% on Monday. 

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Boeing's largest single-aisle model currently in production features a panel known as a door plug, which replaces an exit that would be installed on planes designed to carry more passengers. The majority of operators use the version with the door plug. Those familiar with the process have stated that the panel is installed in two stages, first by supplier Spirit AeroSystems and then completed by Boeing. Investigators plan to review both manufacturing and maintenance records. AAR Corp, an aviation services provider, denied reports that it had worked near the door plug. Both the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Boeing declined to comment on the reports of loose bolts.  "Since we started preliminary inspections on Saturday, we have found instances that seem to be related to installation issues in the door plug – for example, bolts that needed additional tightening," United stated. On Monday, the FAA authorized airlines to inspect grounded jets using a process approved by Boeing. Alaska Airlines stated that it also requires additional approval from U.S. regulators before beginning inspections, so it has not yet had the opportunity to search for any additional loose bolts. The inspections, which are expected to last several days, have resulted in the cancellation of numerous flights. However, a senior industry source stated that the timing is becoming increasingly uncertain and that the FAA, under new leadership, will proceed with caution. The FAA stated that planes will remain grounded "until operators complete enhanced inspections which include both left and right cabin door exit plugs, door components, and fasteners." Shares of Boeing supplier Spirit AeroSystems dropped 11%. The Alaska Airlines pilots managed to safely land the plane, and no major injuries were reported, even though oxygen masks were deployed and personal items were sucked out of the plane. Anthony Brickhouse, an air safety expert at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, emphasized the importance of determining whether the issue was specific to the aircraft involved in the incident on Friday night. The discovery of loose bolts on several aircraft by United Airlines implies that the scope of the investigation will be broadened. A diagram of the 737 MAX 9 door plug, shared by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, reveals four bolts - two at the top corners of the plug and two at the lower hinge brackets - that secure the plug to the fuselage. Additional "stop fittings" at 12 different points along the side of the plug and the door frame further secure the plug, preventing it from being ejected from the airframe. 

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The panel was found in his backyard by a Portland school teacher, known only as "Bob", in the Cedar Hills neighborhood, according to NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy. Homendy stated that the cockpit voice recorder failed to record any data as it had been overwritten. She reiterated her call for regulators to require the retrofitting of existing planes with recorders that can capture 25 hours of data, a significant increase from the current U.S. requirement of two hours. On Monday, Alaska Airlines canceled 170 flights, representing 20% of its scheduled departures, and anticipated travel disruptions to continue until at least the middle of the week. United Airlines, which has grounded its fleet of 79 MAX 9s, canceled 226 flights on Monday, equating to 8% of its scheduled departures. According to aviation analytics firm Cirium, of the 171 planes affected by the order, 144 are operating in the United States. Turkish Airlines, Panama's Copa Airlines, and Aeromexico have grounded their affected jets, while Indonesia has suspended the use of three jets not included in the order.

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