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Airline industry officials believe Boeing is responsible for Alaska Airlines incident

An Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 Max 9 awaits inspection at the airline's hangar at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on Jan. 10, 2024, in SeaTac, Wash. (Lindsey Wasson/AP)
An Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 Max 9 awaits inspection at the airline's hangar at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on Jan. 10, 2024, in SeaTac, Wash. (Lindsey Wasson/AP)

Boeing’s 737 MAX 9 planes are flying again.

The Federal Aviation Administration had grounded them after a piece known as a door plug blew off on an Alaska Airlines flight earlier this month. Experts now believe Boeing may be at fault for failing to reinstall bolts to secure this door plug at the factory.

And there is more at stake now for Boeing: The company is dropping a request for a safety exemption from the FAA for its new 737 Max 7 model, which has not yet flown commercially and would need to get certified to do so. The FAA warned that its engine de-icing system poses a safety hazard.

Dominic Gates, an aerospace reporter at The Seattle Times who won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the 737 Max, compares the de-icing system to the defroster on a car.

“It’s a system that blows hot air onto the inlet at the front of the pod that surrounds the engine,” he says, “and its purpose is to stop the buildup of ice.”

Gates says this system exists on all operating Boeing Max models. And last August, the FAA issued an airworthiness directive pointing out this vulnerability.

All 737 Max engine pods are made out of carbon composites, unlike the metal parts on previous models of the 737. So Gates says pilots have to remember to turn the system off when they’re out of icy conditions to avoid overheating.

“It could damage the engine pod to the extent that it might even break off,” he says, “and that would be extremely dangerous.”

Boeing requested a safety exemption on their new Max model, as it happened, hours before the door plug blew off on the Alaska Airlines Max 9.

Boeing will now have to find a fix for the Max 7 engine de-icing system, which will delay certification for operation.

Gates says he believes the 737 Max is safe now because the FAA is being rigorous enough with Boeing. But he notes that Boeing has a serious problem with its safety culture, caused by two things: squeezing suppliers for money and alienating employees.

“There are generations of people who worked in the factories and had pride in

Boeing who have lost that because they’re treated as replaceable,” Gates says. “Boeing has a big job to fix that culture and to get people back to the pride of a great company again. But it will take time.”


Adeline Sire produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Sire also adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.