A cursed plane? Welcomed in 2015 as a revolution in the world of aeronautics, the Boeing 737 Max, created to compete with the Airbus A320, has suffered a series of disappointments since its entry into service in 2017. Friday January 5, an Alaska Airlines plane heading to from Ontario, California, was forced to make an emergency landing at Portland International Airport from where he had taken off a few minutes earlier. The reason ? A section of its fuselage suddenly detached. On social media, passengers on the flight shared photos showing a gaping hole in the side of the plane, behind the left wing. Miraculously, no passengers were injured. The National Transportation Safety Board (FAA) and Alaska Airlines said they are investigating the incident.
Yet the 737-9 was almost new: manufactured in 2023 and certified in November, the FAA said. In a press release published Friday, the president of the company announced that it would “temporarily” ground the 65 aircraft in its Boeing 737-9 fleet.
Just like United, which has the largest fleet of 737-9s in the world: 46 aircraft are awaiting inspection, with 33 having already been examined. Its competitor Aeromexico has decided to ground all its 737 MAX 9s until checks have been carried out, and the Panamanian company Copa Airlines has suspended the operation of 21 aircraft. On Sunday, the Turkish company Turkish Airlines announced that it was keeping the five Boeing 737 MAX 9s in its fleet on the ground.
In the United States, the American Federal Civil Aviation Agency (FAA) on Saturday ordered the immediate inspection of 171 Boeing 737 MAX 9 aircraft, kept on the ground after the incident. The FAA directive “requires airlines to inspect the aircraft before a new flight,” the agency said.
Six years ago, on October 28, 2018, 189 people died in the crash, off the coast of Indonesia, of a Lion Air Boeing 737 Max, shortly after taking off from Jakarta. A month after the accident, Indonesian investigators attributed the accident to a design defect, inadequate pilot training and poor crew performance.
The MCAS, the automatic system which was to prevent the plane from diving, was singled out. “The design and certification of MCAS were unsuitable,” declared the national committee in charge of transport safety. Likewise, a sensor in this system had been “miscalibrated”. A defect not detected by the maintenance teams.
Less than five months later, on March 10, 2019, an Ethiopian Airlines 737-800 MAX crashed a few minutes after takeoff. The 149 passengers, including nine French people, and the eight crew members died. The plane was flying from Addis Ababa to Nairobi, Kenya. The preliminary investigation report questioned the Boeing's anti-stall system, although it was activated.
In the days that followed, 737 MAXs were banned from Chinese, European, Indian, Canadian and American airspace. But also prohibited from flying over Tunisia, Egypt, Argentina, Japan, Malaysia, Turkey, Australia or even the United Arab Emirates. Many companies had also grounded their planes, such as Ethiopian Airlines, Norwegian Air Shuttle and Turkish Airlines.
In January 2020, Boeing suspended production of its aircraft. After two years of being grounded, the 737 MAX was once again authorized to fly over European skies at the start of 2020; just like in the United States, Brazil and Canada.
The FAA had only authorized return to service after changes to the flight control system.
In December 2023, the manufacturer informed airlines that the aircraft needed to be inspected for loose parts in the rudder control system, following the discovery by an international operator of a bolt without a nut during a routine inspection. The aircraft manufacturer then spotted a nut “which was not properly tightened” on an aircraft not yet delivered.
More recently, Boeing had to slow down deliveries due to problems with the fuselage, particularly with the aircraft's rear bulkhead. At the end of December, Boeing delivered a total of more than 1,370 copies of the 737 MAX and its order book currently contains more than 4,000. Suspended by China since the crashes, deliveries to Chinese companies have still not resumed.