Take the aisle seat

The story of last night's blowout of a portion of the fuselage of an Alaska Airlines 737-9 MAX jet, less than two months old, is truly hair-raising. The traumatizing incident happened on a flight from Portland to Ontario, California. Fortunately no one was killed. Fortunately the plane was only at 16,000 feet when the blowout happened. Fortunately no one was in the window seat where the panel fell off. There were two people in the middle and aisle seats, though. They are lucky to be alive.

Today many, if not all, of the 737-9 MAXes in operation all over the globe have been grounded so that they can be inspected. But given the litany of quality control problems with that particular model of jet, it's hard to tell what the heck they are looking for. In the last few months, we've read that:

Boeing’s deliveries are currently affected by a 737 MAX production issue discovered in late August. The issue concerns improperly drilled fastener holes in the aft pressure bulkhead on the fuselages of some 737 MAX models....

Last year, the FAA told pilots to limit use of an anti-ice system on the Max in dry conditions because of concern that inlets around the engines could overheat and break away, possibly striking the plane....

Boeing is asking airlines to inspect its 737 Max jets for a potential loose bolt in the rudder control system, the airplane maker and Federal Aviation Administration confirmed this week.

The FAA said it would be “closely monitoring” the targeted inspections. The agency said Thursday that Boeing issued its inspection guidance to airlines after an international operator found a bolt with a missing nut during routine maintenance. In a separate case, Boeing also discovered an undelivered aircraft that had a nut that was not properly tightened.

And of course, hundreds of passengers and crew have died on the MAX because of its Rube Goldberg stabilization system, made necessary by the unfortunate placement of the engines. Two horrifying fatal accidents kept that model out of the skies for years. 

But these later groundings tend to be brief. Already Alaska is telling passengers that they've checked many of the other MAXes, and everything's fine.

As of Saturday morning, more than a quarter of inspections on the Alaska Airlines' Boeing 737 MAX 9 fleet are complete with "no concerning findings," the carrier said.

Alaska said planes will continue to return to service as inspections are completed....

The damage that led to the emergency landing appeared to be in the location of a "plug," said John J. Nance, an ABC News aviation analyst. Those are spots in the fuselage shaped similar to a door that aren't designed to open, even when the aircraft is on the ground. They could be converted to doors if the airline needs an extra boarding door. 

In the old days, when Boeing was effectively being run by engineers and pilots, a plane like the MAX never would have been sold. But now, like so many multinational corporations, Boeing's being run by accountants. That's when the walls start blowing off.

If you fly Alaska Airlines in or out of Portland, you probably can't avoid the 737 MAX. I've been on them more than a handful of times in the last couple of years. I'd rather not do it again any time soon, but sometimes there's no choice. Your life is in the hands of the suits at Boeing and the suits at Alaska Air, and neither group seems to have its act together. Just ask the people trying to get to Ontario last night.


  1. how does one avoid a particular model of plane?

    1. Sometimes, when you buy tickets online, the plane will be named. Whatever you do, don't sit in row 26 on a 737 max.

  2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pHXevnoAciY Lucky they were all in their seatbelts

  3. Great sleuthing, Jack.
    The newsy folk haven’t so far mentioned the prior improperly installed bolts on the fuselage!
    The suits should go to jail but they won’t!
    The original Boeings are spinning in their graves.

  4. Boeing today is a lot like GM in the 70’s. Taken oven by accountants and Ivy League suits. Almost ruined GM when the engineers and sales people were pushed aside.

  5. I generally prefer the window seat on the left side of the plane. I'll be switching to aisle immediately.

  6. The airlines love to upcharge for the more desirable seats. Maybe they'll offer a deep discount for sitting in a plug row?

  7. Years ago, I worked for a company out in Washougal that was founded and run by engineers. That was until the founders sold and the money folks came in. As the engineers retired, they replaced them with dummies like me, a history major who worked cheap. They had consolidated decades of knowledge into a monster Excel file, taught me how to extract information from it, and has me work directly with customers to design and manufacture products. The file literally spat red and green cells back at me to tell me whether the thing I was designing would work or not. I'd hand my homework over to one of the remaining engineers who would stamp it and away we went.

    It's terrifying how much of the world we've turned over to Excel and algorithms. On the other hand, it was Excel and algorithms that boosted my 401k by over 20% last year.


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