Four bolts used to secure a panel that flew off an Alaska Airlines plane during a flight last month were removed — and have not been replaced — in Renton, Wash., according to a preliminary report published Tuesday by The National. Transportation Safety Board.
According to Boeing records, a panel known as a door plug was opened to repair damaged rivets in the fuselage. The report did not say who removed the bolts with the door insert. But the safety board said all the bolts were not put back in place once the door was reinstalled on the plane after the rivets were repaired.
As evidence, NTSB provided a photo of the door insert after it was reinstalled, but before the interior of the plane was restored. In the picture, three of the four bolts are missing. The location of the fourth bolt is covered with insulation.
The report said the image was attached to “a text message between Boeing team members on September 19, 2023.” Boeing employees were “discussing interior restoration after rivet rework was completed during second shift operations that day,” the report said.
The safety board said there was no evidence the plug was reopened after Boeing left the factory. The plane was delivered to Alaska Airlines in late October.
The report intensifies scrutiny of Boeing, which has struggled for weeks to contain the fallout from the incident, and raises new questions about whether the company did enough to improve safety after two fatal crashes of 737 Max 8 planes in 2018 and 2019. It also answers important questions about why the door plug on Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 was disconnected shortly after takeoff from Portland International Airport in Oregon.
In a statement, Boeing Chief Executive Dave Calhoun said, “Boeing must take responsibility for what happened, no matter what the final decision is.”
“Such an incident should never happen on an aircraft leaving our factory,” he added. “We want to do better for our customers and their passengers. We are implementing a comprehensive program to strengthen quality and the confidence of our stakeholders.
The NTSB ruled out other possible causes for improper installation of the door plug. The piece was manufactured in Malaysia in March and received by Boeing supplier Spirit Aerosystems in Wichita, Conn., which makes Max fuselages, the report said. The safety board said it found a minor issue with the “seal flushness” of the Spirit door plug, and the report found that the problem did not require any further manufacturing work, and Spirit had no other quality issues for the plug.
“We are focused on continuous improvement in our processes and working closely with Boeing and our regulators to meet the highest standards of safety, quality and reliability,” said Joe Puccino, a spokesman for Spirit.
The fuselage was then shipped to Boeing on Aug. 20 and arrived at the Renton factory on Aug. 31, the report said. There, the damaged rivets — often used in airplanes to attach and secure parts — were flagged on Sept. 1. Once the plug was removed to access the rivets, Spirit Aerosystems employees in Renton completed the repairs.
After the aircraft was delivered to Alaska Airlines, wireless Internet equipment was also installed in Oklahoma City from November 27 to December 7. But the contractor that did the work, AAR, said it replaced “approximately 60” Alaska Airlines 737 Maxes. 9 flights and no door inserts had to be removed to do the job, the report said.
The safety board said it would continue its investigation into what documents were used to “open and close” the door latch.
Almost immediately, the Alaska Airlines incident prompted the Federal Aviation Administration to ground some Max 9 jets, reducing the schedules of the two US carriers flying the model, Alaska and United Airlines, by several days.
“This incident should never have happened and it will never happen again,” the FAA said in a statement after the safety board's report was released on Tuesday.
The FAA has also indefinitely limited Boeing's ambitious plans to ramp up production of all Max jets, leaving the company in limbo. The company had planned to roll out 42 jets a month this year and 50 jets a month next year, but instead it will remain steady at 38 for several months. Boeing executives last week declined to provide a financial forecast for the year, citing the incident as a focus on safety.
Angry airline executives have taken the rare step of publicly criticizing Boeing and expressing doubt that it can deliver the planes they ordered on time.
The incident and its ripple effects put Boeing, one of the world's two largest aircraft manufacturers, in a familiar position: trying to navigate a crisis with unknown financial and reputational costs. Five years ago, after two Max 8 crashes killed nearly 350 people, the company spent billions of dollars trying to make its planes safer and repair its reputation. The accidents were caused by a malfunction in the aircraft's flight stabilization system.
Boeing is back on its heels, racing to assure customers, regulators and members of Congress that it is fully focused on improving quality control. Mr. Calhoun visited the Spirit in Wichita. Boeing also held a one-day work stoppage at the Renton factory for employees to attend quality sessions. And it has promised to reward employees for “talking things down if necessary.”
But despite efforts to address its problems, Boeing said Sunday that a supplier last week discovered a new problem with dozens of unfinished 737 Max planes. “A couple of holes may not be drilled correctly for our needs,” the supplier found.
Although he did not name the supplier, a Spirit spokeswoman said a member of its team discovered the problem last week, which did not meet engineering standards. The problem will force Boeing to rework about 50 planes, Boeing said.
In a call with analysts on Tuesday, Patrick Shanahan, chief executive of Spirit Aerosystems, said it was increasing the number of inspections it conducted in addition to Boeing's.
On Tuesday, Mike Whittaker, the FAA's top official, told a House panel that the agency is stepping up its ground presence to monitor Boeing's aircraft production.
“Going forward, we will be closely scrutinizing and monitoring production and manufacturing operations and have more boots on the ground,” Mr. Whittaker told the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee's aviation subcommittee.
The agency has opened an investigation into Boeing's compliance with safety standards as well as curbs on production increases. That began an audit looking at the company's production of Max, which Mr. Whittaker said would take six weeks.
He said the agency has hired about two dozen inspectors at Boeing and another half dozen at Spirit.
Saint Nergar Contributed report.