The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is launching a formal investigation into aircraft manufacturer Boeing after a cabin panel blowout on an Alaska Airlines-operated 737 Max 9 jet last week forced an emergency landing.
“This incident should have never happened and it cannot happen again,” the FAA said in a statement on Thursday, after a panel known as a “door plug” blew out of the plane, causing a gaping hole, shortly after takeoff from the western US state of Oregon.
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There were no fatalities or serious injuries after Alaska Airlines safely executed an emergency landing in the January 5 incident, but investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) have said the incident could have resulted in serious harm.
The FAA probe – which could result in a financial penalty on Boeing – marks an escalation by the agency following the first major in-flight safety issue on a Boeing plane since the fatal 2018 and 2019 737 Max crashes that killed 346 people and led to all aircraft being grounded for nearly two years.
The FAA also said it was investigating “additional discrepancies on other Boeing 737-9 airplanes,” according to a letter to the company that gave it 10 days to respond.
This refers to reports from Alaska and United Airlines of “loose” hardware on delivered planes found in preliminary investigations of the jets.
“Boeing’s manufacturing practices need to comply with the high safety standards they’re legally accountable to meet,” the FAA said.
The letter cited a statute requiring Boeing to ensure that “completed products” are “in a condition for safe operation.”
The agency said Boeing’s response to the FAA should include the “root cause” of the incident, actions to prevent a recurrence and any relevant mitigating circumstances.
Boeing said on Thursday that it would “cooperate fully and transparently” with the investigations.
Aviation consultant Jeff Guzzetti, a former head of the FAA’s investigation division who also worked at the NTSB, said the “sweeping” language in the FAA letter suggests the investigation could be broadened to Boeing’s production processes, including into other planes besides the Max.
Boeing will need to spell out its investigative findings, even if it has not determined a root cause, Guzzetti told the AFP news agency, adding that the probe could take months and result in fines.
Guzzetti said he is hoping that the Alaska Airlines problem was a “one-off” but “if it turns out to be many aircraft, that will be disturbing to me”.
US regulators have grounded 171 737 Max 9 planes with the same configuration as the jet involved in the incident this month.
Earlier this week, Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun promised “complete transparency” as the aviation giant tries to pivot from its latest crisis.
In an interview with US broadcaster CNBC on Wednesday, Calhoun said the company was still in fact-finding mode, adding that “we’re going to want to know what broke down in our gauntlet of inspections”.
The affected panel is used to fill spots for extra doors when those exits are not required for safety reasons, and NTSB investigators have suggested that the part was not affixed adequately.
The FAA has been working with Boeing on inspection instructions for the 737 Max 9 planes before they can be returned to service.
Alaska Airlines has cancelled flights on the aircraft through January 13, resulting in between 110 and 150 flight cancellations per day.
A Seattle law firm on Friday filed a class-action lawsuit against Boeing, saying passengers on the Alaska Airlines flight suffered physical and psychological injury and emotional distress. It seeks unspecified damages for the treatment of health conditions, travel expenses and the loss of personal items.