Alaska, United cancel more flights as Boeing probes ‘quality’ issue

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Alaska Airlines said on Wednesday it will cancel all flights on Boeing 737 MAX 9 jets through Saturday as it conducts inspections after a cabin panel blowout on Friday, which Boeing (BA.N) suggested was caused by a “quality” issue.

The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on Saturday grounded 171 Boeing jets installed with the same panel after the emergency landing, including Alaska’s 65 MAX-9s, that have forced the cancelling about 20% of its daily flights.

United Airlines, the other US 737 MAX 9 operator with 79 of the planes in its fleet, separately said it has cancelled 167 MAX 9 flights yesterday and expects “significant” cancellations today as well.

The Chicago-based carrier said it can operate some planned flights by switching to other aircraft types.

United said it is still awaiting final approval for the full inspection process for the grounded jets.

Alaska Airlines said it still needs revised inspection and maintenance instructions from Boeing that must be approved by the FAA before it can begin flying the planes again.

“We will only return these aircraft to service when all findings have been fully resolved and meet all FAA and Alaska’s stringent standards,” Alaska Airlines said.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg declined to say yesterday when the FAA may allow the planes to resume flights.

“The only consideration on the timeline is safety,” Buttigieg told reporters. “Until it is ready, it is not ready. Nobody can or should be rushed in that process.”

Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun told CNBC separately on Wednesday a “quality escape” was at issue in the MAX 9 cabin blowout that left a gaping hole in the plane that had just been in service for eight weeks but added there are key questions.

“What broke down in our gauntlet of inspections? What broke down in the original work that allowed for that escape to happen?” Calhoun said.

He said a quality escape is “a description of what people are finding in their inspections… anything that could potentially contribute to an accident.”

Calhoun said he has spoken to Buttigieg and FAA Administrator Mike Whitaker to ensure there is no repeat of any cabin panel blowout on any 737 MAX 9 after Friday’s incident.

Alaska Airlines and United Airlines said on Monday they had found loose parts on multiple grounded aircraft, raising new concerns among industry experts about how Boeing’s best-selling jet family is manufactured.

The US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is also focused on whether the recovered cabin panel that blew off had been properly attached or if the bolts were actually present.

Buttigieg said he told Calhoun how important it was they address the issue in the MAX 9 and that every plane they deliver “needs to be 100% safe and they need to be able to demonstrate.”

He said the FAA “will continue with a very, very strict level of oversight” to ensure that.

Buttigieg said he has also spoken to the United and Alaska CEOs and they agreed to take care of passengers whose flights have been cancelled because of the grounding.

Alaska Airlines makes emergency landing: