After incidents in Alaska and United Airlines, problems with the Boeing 737 Max 9 are increasing. Here's what we know.

Passengers sit near the damaged Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 Max 9, which was forced to return to Portland International Airport on January 5. (Elizabeth Le via AP) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

On Monday, United Airlines said loose screws and other “installation issues” had been discovered on the door plugs of some Boeing 737 MAX 9 aircraft.

“Since we began preliminary inspections on Saturday, we have found instances that appear to be related to installation problems in the door stopper – for example, screws that needed to be tightened even further,” United said.

The mandatory inspections come after the Federal Aviation Administration forced the grounding of Boeing 737 MAX 9 aircraft. Alaska Airlines and United are the only two US airlines that operate this particular model of Boeing 737.

“Boeing 737-9 aircraft will remain grounded until operators complete advanced inspections that include both left and right cabin door exit plugs, door components and fasteners,” the FAA said in a statement on Monday, adding that at the Inspections found any problems must be corrected before the aircraft can be returned to service.

About 171 aircraft worldwide were affected by the pause, which led to the cancellation of hundreds of flights, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

On Friday, Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 was forced to make an emergency landing shortly after takeoff after a door plug popped out, leaving a large hole in the side of the plane as it climbed. The door stopper has since been recovered and the National Transportation Safety Board opened an investigation into what it called an “accident” over the weekend.

Shares of Boeing fell as much as 9% at the opening of trading on Monday morning, the first business day since the incident.

No serious injuries

Incredibly, none of the 171 passengers and six crew members on board the flight from Portland, Oregon, to Ontario, California were injured.

The plane was climbing at an altitude of about 16,000 feet when a panel on the plane's fuselage was blown out.

There was no one sitting in 26A and 26B, where the door stopper was.

“We're very, very lucky here that this didn't end more tragically,” said NTSB Chairwoman Jennifer Homendy over the weekend.

The aircraft had not yet reached cruising altitude and the seat belt sign remained on to discourage passengers and crew from walking around the cabin.

“Just from talking to everyone who took part in the interviews, it was described as chaos, very loud, between the air and everything that was going on around them,” Homendy said at a news conference on Sunday. “And it was very violent with the rapid decompression and the door [plug] was thrown out of the plane.”

Some passengers were treated for minor injuries on board.

What the investigation has revealed so far

The lost door stopper — which weighs 63 pounds and measures 26 by 48 inches — was found Sunday in a Portland school teacher's backyard.

NTSB investigators will examine the plug to look for evidence of how it came loose and compare it to the plane's door plug on the other side.

The aircraft used for Flight 1282 had other problems. After a warning light indicating a pressure problem came on on three previous flights, the plane was banned from long routes to Hawaii that took place over open water. This restriction was introduced in the event that the warning light came on again to allow the aircraft to return quickly to an airport. The warning light had already gone out on December 7, 2023 and January 3 and 4, just a day before the door plug flew off.

Homendy added that Alaska Airlines had instructed additional maintenance personnel to pay attention to the pressurization warning light, but this was not completed before Friday's accident. Homendy admitted that the warning light issue may be unrelated.

Another hurdle is that investigators cannot rely on Flight 1282's cockpit data recorder.

“The cockpit voice recorder was completely overwritten… after two hours it will be re-recorded so we have nothing from the CVR [cockpit voice recorder]” Homendy told reporters, adding that it was “critically important” to increase that recording time to 25 hours, the current standard in Europe and many other countries.

While the Federal Aviation Administration has proposed a new rule to implement this increase, it would only apply to newer flights. So the Alaska Airlines flight would not have qualified, Homendy said.

Two cell phones that appeared to belong to passengers on board Flight 1282 were later recovered. One was found in a yard, the other on the side of the road.

What's next

The NTSB is expected to work with officials from Alaska Airlines, Boeing, the FAA and groups representing pilots and flight attendants in its investigation.

“As we await the FAA and Boeing airworthiness directive inspection criteria, our maintenance teams are prepared and ready to conduct the necessary inspections,” Alaska Airlines said in a statement. The airline said cancellations would continue to occur during the first half of the week and that passengers should check for updates.

United Airlines too gave a statement on X They said they are working with affected customers to find “alternative travel options” for them and recommended they check for updates on or the United app for the latest information.

Meanwhile, Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun sent out a company-wide memo that said, in part: “When serious accidents like this occur, it is critical for us to work transparently with our customers and regulators to understand the causes of the event. “Tackling them and making sure they work” doesn’t happen again. This is and must be the focus of our team now.”

Calhoun plans to hold a safety meeting for all employees on Tuesday at the 737 factory in Renton, Washington.

Anna Harden

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