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Boeing CEO: We’ll make sure another Alaska Airlines incident never happens again

By Ramishah Maruf, CNN

New York (CNN) — On Friday, an Alaska Airlines flight carrying 177 people made an emergency landing shortly following takeoff from Portland, Oregon, after part of the wall of a new 737 Max 9 aircraft detached mid-flight and left a gaping hole in the side of the plane.

Remarkably, no one was killed or seriously injured in the incident, though clips of the harrowing accident quickly went viral.

Here is the latest on what to know as Boeing faces yet another 737 Max crisis.

Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun acknowledges ‘quality escape,’ but defends company’s ‘proven design’

During a new interview with CNBC on Wednesday afternoon, Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun said he was “devastated” and “emotional” after seeing video from the Alaska Airlines midflight blowout last Friday.

When asked what exactly happened, Calhoun told CNBC, “What happened is exactly what you saw, a fuselage plug blew out. That’s the mistake, it can never happen.”

But Calhoun emphasized that he is “confident” in the FAA’s ongoing work to “inspect each and every one of the airplanes” and make “certain that they’re in conformance with our design, which is a proven design.”

“I’m confident that that process will not only prevent an accident, but maybe more importantly, the data we collect from each and every one of those inspections, the data we collect will inform all of the actions that we have to take as a company,” Calhoun said.

Still, Calhoun acknowledged that a “quality escape occurred” at some point that allowed the plane to fly in the first place, and said he looks forward to sharing more details about this after the investigation concludes.

Meanwhile, as scrutiny is increasingly placed on aviation supplier Spirit Aerosystems, Calhoun told CNBC that he is confident in their CEO Patrick Shanahan. “We’re not going to point fingers there. Because yes, it escaped their factory, but then it escaped ours too,” he said. “So we’re all in this together. We have to figure this one out.”

“This one is a horrible escape,” Calhoun said. “We’ll make sure that we take steps to ensure that it never, never can happen.”

The 737 Max 9 remains grounded

On Saturday, the Federal Aviation Administration ordered most Boeing 737 Max 9 aircraft to be temporarily grounded as regulators and Boeing investigate the cause of the incident. The order applies to some 171 planes.

That has led to hundreds of cancelations, particularly from Alaska Airlines and United Airlines, which have dozens of the 737 Max 9 planes.

Alaska Airlines acknowledged Wednesday the Boeing 737 Max 9 will not fly for at least several more days, extending its cancelations for flights scheduled on that plane through Saturday. United Airlines said it is canceling 167 Boeing 737 Max 9 flights today and expects significant cancellations on Thursday, too.

“We regret the significant disruption that has been caused for our guests by cancellations due to these aircraft being out of service,” Alaska Airlines said in a statement. “We are working around the clock to reaccommodate impacted guests on other flights.”

The top safety inspector probing the Boeing 737 Max 9 blowout warned regulators Wednesday about hastily allowing the plane model to fly again. Jennifer Homendy, chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board, told CNN’s Poppy Harlow on “CNN This Morning” Wednesday that the FAA and Boeing “really need that information about how that occurred before they can take actions to unground the planes.”

“I would recommend that they not put those back in service until they absolutely know how this occurred,” said Homendy. “That will tell them what inspections need to take place and what repairs need to take place.”

Meanwhile, Spirit AeroSystems — the Boeing contractor that builds the 737 Max 9 fuselage — says it is now part of the NTSB investigation.

Outside of the airline industry, the accident has caught the attention of lawmakers. In a statement on Tuesday, Republican Sen. J.D. Vance of Ohio called for the Senate Commerce Committee to convene a hearing to “evaluate incidents involving the 737 Max, Boeing’s engineering and safety standards, and the quality of oversight provided by the FAA and other relevant government agencies.”

President Joe Biden is monitoring the issue, the White House said Tuesday.

Boeing has faced years of problems

For five years, Boeing has faced repeated quality and safety issues with its aircraft, leading to the long-term grounding of some jets and the halt in deliveries of others.

The 737 Max’s design was found to be responsible for two fatal crashes: one in Indonesia in October 2018 and the other in Ethiopia in March 2019. Together, the two crashes killed all 346 people aboard the two flights and led to a 20-month grounding of the company’s best-selling jets, which cost it more than $21 billion.

Internal communications released during the 737 Max grounding showed one employee describing the jet as “designed by clowns, who in turn are supervised by monkeys.”

Late last month, Boeing asked airlines to inspect all of their 737 Max jets for a potential loose bolt in the rudder system after an airline discovered a potential problem with a key part on two aircraft.

Its quality and engineering problems have extended beyond the 737. Boeing also had to twice halt deliveries of its 787 Dreamliner, for about a year starting in 2021 and again in 2023, due to quality concerns cited by the FAA. And the 777 jet also suffered a grounding after an engine failure on a United flight scattered engine debris onto homes and the ground below.

Boeing’s CEO has acknowledged its mistake

CEO David Calhoun acknowledged the company’s “mistake” related to the Alaska Airlines incident at a staff-wide “safety meeting” Tuesday.

“We’re going to approach this number one acknowledging our mistake,” Calhoun told staff, according to a partial readout of the meeting shared with CNN. “We’re going to approach it with 100% and complete transparency every step of the way. We are going to work with the NTSB [National Transportation Safety Board] who is investigating the accident itself to find out what the cause is.”

A company source previously told CNN that Boeing believes “the mistake in question” was introduced in the aircraft’s manufacturing supply chain, however it is not immediately clear if Calhoun identified any specific error during the presentation.

Now investigators want to know more.

“I have a lot of questions on that statement,” Homendy told CNN Wednesday. “He stated that mistakes were made, and I’d like to understand what mistakes he is referring to.”  She said she has not yet spoken to Calhoun.

Calhoun appeared to address some of the images that emerged from the accident during his remarks to employees Tuesday, including some that showed a gaping hole in the side of the plane.

“When I got that picture, all I could think about – I didn’t know what happened so whoever was supposed to be in the seat next to that hole in the airplane,” Calhoun said. “I’ve got kids, I’ve got grandkids and so do you. This stuff matters. Every detail matters.”

Of the ongoing investigation, Calhoun added that he “trust[s] every step they take, and they will get to a conclusion.”

Boeing still had a great 2023

Despite its problems, Boeing capped its best year since the 737 Max grounding in 2019, reporting record new plane orders in December and one of its best years for sales ever.

The American plane maker reported 1,456 gross orders for the year, which was one of its best years ever. Adjusted for canceled orders, the annual total came to 1,314 commercial aircraft, its third best year on record by that measure and its best total since 2014.

Much of its success is due to the fact that Boeing and Airbus are the only two major global aviation companies. That means Boeing probably doesn’t have to worry about being forced out of business, no matter how extensive its mistakes. Neither company could accommodate all commercial aircraft demand, and both have a backlog of orders stretching back years.

But the problems have meant that Boeing continues to fall further behind Airbus.

What’s been found so far

A preliminary report is expected in three to four weeks, NTSB spokesperson Eric Weiss said.

On Monday night, NTSB said it’s continuing to recover items sucked out from the plane. On Sunday, a Portland schoolteacher found a piece of the aircraft’s fuselage that had landed in his backyard and reached out to the agency. Two cell phones that were likely flung from the hole in the plane were also found in a yard and on the side of the road and turned over to investigators.

Early details are still shocking. The damage extended to several rows on the plane. The two seats next to the detached door plug just happened to be empty when the blowout happened, but had their headrests torn off, according to NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy.

On Monday, United Airlines — which has more Max 9s than any other US carrier — said it found loose door plug bolts on an undisclosed number of its Boeing 737 Max 9 aircraft as it was performing the FAA-mandated inspections of the jets.

Alaska Airlines also said Monday it found loose hardware on some of its 737 Max 9 planes during inspections.

– CNN’s Catherine Thorbecke, Chris Isidore, Greg Wallace and Pete Muntean contributed to this report.

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