Last Friday, Alaska Airlines’ flight 1146 took off from Seattle to San Diego. Sitting in the window seat, next to the door plug—the piece that had flown off an aircraft of the same Boeing 737 Max 9 model three weeks prior—was the airline's Chief Operating Officer, Constance von Muehlen.
While the executive's careful seat selection aimed to demonstrate her confidence in the aircraft model's return to the skies following a nationwide grounding, many travelers don't share her certainty quite yet. According an email statement from the travel search site Kayak, there's been a substantial spike in travelers choosing to filter out the model when searching for flights in recent weeks.
The Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) grounding of the Boeing 737 Max 9 aircraft model on January 6 caused a cascade of flight delays and cancellations this month, particularly impacting Alaska and United Airlines. Following completed inspections of the plane model as required by the FAA, both US airlines have begun returning their inspected planes to the skies, with United’s first Max 9 plane taking off Saturday morning from Newark Liberty International Airport to Las Vegas.
Here's everything concerned (or simply curious) travelers should know about flying on the aircraft following its FAA grounding—from the inspection results and questions that remain under investigation to actions Boeing is taking on the manufacturing side.
How airlines are responding
For travelers who would like to find out whether their upcoming flights are on the newly returned Max 9s, both Alaska and United passengers can check the model under the flight details section of their itinerary. Those in the process of booking their next trip can search for flights on Kayak using the filter option on the left side of the screen to uncheck the “Boeing 737 Max 9” under “Models.”
United has returned to normal operations across its network, and Alaska is expected to do the same by the end of the week. Until then, Alaska Airlines continues to implement a flexible travel policy that allows customers with original travel dates up until February 2 to rebook on flights traveling through February 9. Copa Airlines, Aeromexico, and Turkish Airlines have also begun returning the planes back to flight schedules this week.
If a United customer remains concerned about flying the Max 9, the carrier will move them onto the next available flight on a different aircraft model and waive any differences in fare, a spokesperson for the airline tells Condé Nast Traveler.
While United operates more 737 Max 9 planes than Alaska, it represents a smaller percentage of its total fleet, aviation expert Gary Leff tells Traveler, noting Max 9s represent about a quarter of Alaska’s planes. As a result, “It’s taking a little longer for Alaska to get all of its aircraft vetted and back in the air,” he says.
The inspection process
Leff explains that each of the planes have gone through a meticulous inspection process developed by Boeing and the FAA to ensure each aircraft complies with the FAA’s Airworthiness Directive and is safe to fly.
For Alaska, this took the form of a 12-hour process for each individual plane, the airline said in a news release. First, each door plug was inspected to see if it was originally installed correctly by checking that all of the hardware was in the proper place and that all the measurements were correctly aligned. Then, the door plugs were opened to check for any damage or issues to the hardware holding them in place, including the door and seal components, roller guides, hinges, and guide fittings, as well as the nut plates and fasteners. Finally, they were each resealed under FAA guidelines, according to the airline.
Over at United, a similar inspection process was followed. According to an internal memo from United COO Toby Enqvist, technicians removed an inner panel, sidewall liner, and two rows of seats to inspect the door, seals, frame, and hardware of each door plug, repairing any abnormalities along the way. For both airlines, detailed logging of every measurement was made, according to the required standards.
During initial inspections of the door plugs, both airlines said their technicians reported loose bolts. A National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) probe is currently investigating whether the door plug that fell off Flight 1282 had bolts that were installed incorrectly or if they were missing entirely.
The careful inspection process should quell any concerns from travelers nervous to fly on the Max 9s, Leff tells Traveler, adding that the NTSB investigation will address any long-term concerns, such as if the bolts in question become loosened over time.
Actions Boeing is taking
While the FAA has approved the Max 9s to return to service, it has banned Boeing from expanding 737 production going forward, capping it at current levels. This includes the Max 8, one of Boeing's most popular aircrafts.
On its part, Boeing is taking immediate actions to strengthen quality assurance and controls across its factories, the manufacturer's CEO Stan Deal said in a message to employees. On January 25, Boeing paused manufacturing at the 737 factory in Renton, Washington in order to provide a full-day working session focused on quality and safety for its approximate 10,000 workers.
“Our long-term focus is on improving our quality so that we can regain the confidence of our customers, our regulator and the flying public. Frankly, we have disappointed and let them down,” Deal said. “We have to be better. We have to deliver perfect airplanes each and every time.”
Despite a round of worrisome press—and even pop culture fodder with a Saturday Night Live sketch—Leff explains that travelers with flights scheduled on the Max 9s should feel confident in the aircraft's safe return to the skies. “There’s no reason to be concerned about door plugs on 737 Max 9s right now,” he says. “They have all been inspected.”
Originally Appeared on Condé Nast Traveler