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Airlines cleared to inspect grounded Boeing jets as shares sink

3 min

A delay in the inspection of grounded Boeing jets ended on Monday after U.S. officials retrieved a panel that blew off an Alaska Airlines 737 MAX 9 airliner and shares in the planemaker sagged on concerns over the troubled jet program.

The fuselage plug area of Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 Boeing 737-9 MAX, which was forced to make an emergency landing with a gap in the fuselage, is seen during its investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in Portland, Oregon, U.S. January 7, 2024. NTSB/Handout via Reuters

A delay in the inspection of grounded Boeing jets ended on Monday after U.S. officials retrieved a panel that blew off an Alaska Airlines 737 MAX 9 airliner and shares in the planemaker sagged on concerns over the troubled jet program.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has ordered the temporary grounding for checks of 171 MaX 9 jets installed with the same kind of panel that fell from the jet on Friday, which weighs about 60 pounds (27 kg) and covers an optional exit door.

But inspections were delayed by a snag over paperwork as the weekend decision to inspect part of the rest of the fleet short-circuited the usual sequence of regulatory approvals, forcing airlines to wait until they had received detailed instructions.

Confirming an earlier Reuters report, Boeing said on Monday it had issued the document to airlines.

The inspections - which the regulator has previously said would take about four-to-eight hours per plane - can go ahead once approved by the FAA. A person familiar with the matter said it had given approval. The FAA declined to comment.

The so-called door plug tore off on Friday following takeoff from Portland, Oregon, en route to Ontario, California, depressurizing the plane and forcing pilots to turn back.

The plane, with 171 passengers and six crew on board, landed safely.

The panel was recovered on Sunday by a Portland school teacher identified only as "Bob" in the Cedar Hills neighborhood who found it in his backyard, U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Chair Jennifer Homendy said.

She said she was "very relieved" it had been found having called it a "key missing component" to determine why the accident occurred.

"Our structures team will want to look at everything on the door - all of the components on the door to see, to look at, witness marks, to look at any paint transfer, what shape the door was in when found. That can tell them a lot about what occurred," she said.

The force from the loss of the panel was strong enough to blow open the cockpit door during flight, said Homendy, adding that it must have been a "terrifying event" to experience.

"They heard a bang," Homendy said of the pilots, who were interviewed by investigators.

Homendy said the cockpit voice recorder did not capture any data because it had been overwritten. She again called on regulators to mandate retrofitting existing planes with recorders that capture 25 hours of data, up from the two hours required in the U.S. at present.

SHARES SINK

Boeing's shares fell around 8% as investors digested the latest setback for the planemaker.

If the losses hold, the company would lose more than $12.5 billion in value, almost the cost of developing a new plane.

The mishap comes as Boeing and supplier Spirit AeroSystems, which made the panel, grapple with ongoing production setbacks that have hampered recovery from an earlier lengthy 737 MAX safety grounding and wider disruption from the pandemic.

Since the 737 MAX was grounded in March 2019, Boeing shares have fallen by more than 40% while Airbus shares are up 25%.

Spirit Aero shares aso fell 8% in late morning trading in New York. Alaska Airlines shares were broadly stable and fell 5% while shares in United Airlines, the only other U.S. airline that operates the jets, rose around 2%.

PLANES GROUNDED

The FAA said on Sunday the affected fleet of Boeing MAX 9 planes, including those operated by other carriers such as United, would remain grounded until the regulator was satisfied they were safe.

Of the 171 planes covered by the order, 144 are operating in the United States, according to data from aviation analytics firm Cirium. Turkish Airlines, Panama's Copa Airlines and Aeromexico said they were grounding affected jets.

On Monday, Indonesia's transport ministry said it had temporarily grounded three 737 MAX 9 planes, operated by Lion Air, even though they had different configurations from the Alaska Airlines plane.

The FAA initially said on Saturday the required inspections would take four to eight hours, leading many in the industry to assume the planes could very quickly return to service.

But criteria for the checks have yet to be agreed between the FAA and Boeing, meaning airlines have yet to receive detailed instructions, people familiar with the matter said.

The FAA must approve Boeing's inspection criteria before the checks can be completed and the planes can resume flying.

Alaska Airlines said late on Sunday it had not received instructions from Boeing.

The airline canceled 170 flights on Sunday and a further 60 on Monday and said travel disruptions were expected to last through at least mid-week. United, which has grounded its 79 MAX 9s, canceled 230 flights on Sunday, or 8% of its scheduled departures.

By Valerie Insinna, Joanna Plucinska and Lisa Barrington

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