United and Alaska Airlines find loose parts on 737 Maxes

Unlock the Editor’s Digest for free

United Airlines has found loose bolts on some plugged doors of its grounded 737 Maxes, threatening to widen Boeing’s problems as it expands public scrutiny beyond the single plane that suffered a mid-air blowout on Friday.

The Chicago-based carrier said on Monday that inspections of its 737 Max 9s, a variant of the single-aisle jet that contains more seats than the more popular Max 8, “found instances that appear to relate to installation issues in the door plug — for example, bolts that needed additional tightening”.

The airline said its technical operations team would fix the problem “to safely return the aircraft to service”.

News of United’s discovery, which was first reported by the trade publication The Air Current, hit Boeing’s shares further. Its stock closed down 8 per cent on Monday at $229 while shares in Spirit AeroSystems, its biggest supplier, lost 11 per cent to close at $28.20.

The discovery comes after a Max 9 operated by Alaska Airlines, flying from Portland to California, lost a chunk of its fuselage at 16,000 feet. There were 171 passengers and six crew members aboard, but no one was seriously injured.

On Saturday the US Federal Aviation Administration grounded all Max 9s configured with a plugged, or permanently shut, door. Carriers with denser seating configurations use the doors, while those with fewer seats seal them off.

The National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the incident, located the door from the Alaska Airlines flight on Monday in a Portland suburb.

United has 79 Max 9s with this configuration, out of about 215 in operation worldwide, according to aviation data provider Cirium. That is more than Alaska’s 65, or the combined total of 52 at Copa Airlines, Aeroméxico and Icelandair.

United has cancelled 200 flights on the Max 9, a little less than 8 per cent of its flights on Monday, according to data provider FlightAware. Alaska Airlines has cancelled 22 per cent.

United said that on Saturday that it had begun preparing to inspect its grounded planes by removing two rows of seats and removing the inner panel to access the door plug. From the inside, plugged doors have a window and appear to be an unbroken part of the aeroplane’s wall.

The carrier said this work had been done on most of its Max 9s. From there, airline staff would inspect and verify that the door and frame hardware were properly installed, opening it and then securing it again, and the problems would be documented and fixed.

Boeing issued technical instructions on Monday, outlining for airlines how the door should be installed if it is done properly. The FAA, which reviewed the instructions, said on Saturday that each inspection should take four to eight hours.

“As operators conduct the required inspections, we are staying in close contact with them and will help address any and all findings. We are committed to ensuring every Boeing airplane meets design specifications and the highest safety and quality standards. We regret the impact this has had on our customers and their passengers,” the plane maker said.

United said that its five-person inspection teams would work on each aircraft for “several hours”. It expects to have a clearer estimate of the time after it performs more inspections.