It appears Boeing 737 MAX 9 aircraft will begin returning to the skies in the coming days after the planes were grounded in the wake of a harrowing incident on an Alaska Airlines flight earlier this month in which a door plug explosively blew out of an aircraft during flight.
Both Alaska and United Airlines reported Wednesday evening the carriers had received final instructions from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for inspecting their fleets of MAX 9 aircraft, which have been grounded since the Jan. 5 incident.
Alaska, late Wednesday, said it will begin detailed inspections of its MAX 9 aircraft and plans to return the jets to service, one-by-one, once each is completed.
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Each inspection involves removing rows of seats, paneling, and then opening the door plug itself, before checking and — if necessary — repairing any problems, according to United Airlines, the largest U.S. operator of the aircraft, which also reported it received final inspection instructions Wednesday.
As for timing, Alaska said each of the planes is expected to take around 12 hours to inspect.
— Alaska Airlines (@AlaskaAir) January 25, 2024
The Seattle-based carrier expects its first few MAX 9s will begin flying as soon as Friday, with the remainder of its inspections expected over the next week. Alaska said it hoped to return more planes to service each day as inspections are completed and each aircraft is deemed airworthy.
Alaska has 65 MAX 9s in its fleet.
Meanwhile, United says it will likely begin returning MAX 9s to the skies as soon as Sunday, also following detailed inspections as dictated by the FAA.
“We will only return each MAX 9 aircraft to service once this thorough inspection process is complete,” United executive vice president and chief operations officer Toby Enqvist said in a letter to the airline’s employees Wednesday, obtained by TPG.
United has 79 MAX 9s in its fleet.
The grounding of the MAX 9 jet has fueled thousands of cancellations in the U.S. alone this month.
For weeks, it’s been unclear when the aircraft might return to service — especially as Alaska and United both reported finding loose bolts around the door plug on other MAX 9s.
A National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation into the Alaska Flight 1282 incident is still ongoing.
Understandably, the return of the aircraft to service could leave travelers wary.
In a social media post Wednesday evening, FAA administrator Michael Whitaker remained adamant that only aircraft deemed fully safe to fly will return to commercial service.
“We grounded the Boeing 737-9 MAX and made clear it would not return to flight until it was safe,” Whitaker said in a post on X (formerly Twitter). “The enhanced review our team completed gives me and the FAA confidence to proceed to the inspection and maintenance phase prior to returning to operation.”
The FAA also announced Wednesday that it will not allow the Boeing to expand its production of the 737 MAX aircraft “until satisfied the quality control issues uncovered are resolved.”
For its part, Boeing plans to hold the first in a series of “quality stand downs” on Thursday, during which employees will pause their work for a day “so employees can take part in working sessions focused on quality.”
The company has drawn the ire of regulators, lawmakers and airlines in the wake of the Jan. 5 inflight emergency.