Alaska Airlines and passengers face more disruption over Boeing plane


For Alaska Airlines and its passengers, the return to normal may take a while.

The airline has grounded a fifth of its fleet after a fuselage panel of one of its Boeing 737 Max 9 planes exploded on Friday night, leaving a hole in the side of the plane.

The airline announced Wednesday that it would keep its Max 9 planes grounded until at least Saturday while it awaited instructions from Boeing on how to conduct safety inspections.

United Airlines, with 79 aircraft, and Alaska, with 65, are the largest users of the Max 9 in the United States. But the plane model represents less than 10 percent of United's fleet, allowing it to fill gaps in planned routes more easily than Alaska.

The grounding of the Max 9 has forced Alaska to cancel up to 150 flights per day. About 20 percent of its flights were canceled Wednesday, according to FlightAware, which tracks flight data.

“It's been extremely disruptive,” said Bret Peyton, chief operating officer of Alaska Airlines.

It's unclear when those planes will fly again.

The day after the incident, the Federal Aviation Administration ordered all 171 Max 9 planes in the United States to be grounded and inspected. Boeing gave instructions to airlines on how to inspect planes, but the aviation agency said Tuesday that those instructions needed to be revised.

Although it's unclear why Boeing's initial inspection instructions fell short, the FAA said the “safety of the flying public, not speed,” would take priority in returning the planes to service.

“It's a waiting game for the FAA,” said Kathleen Bangs, an aviation specialist at FlightAware. “You can rest assured that those airlines, especially Alaska, are in close contact with them.”

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the manufacturing and installation of the panel, known as a door stopper, that came loose. Alaska and United said they had found loose parts during preliminary inspections of the panels.

When Alaska grounded the Max 9, it looked at whether other planes, even of different sizes, could complete the same routes. For example, if a flight was going somewhere in bad weather and was at risk of being canceled anyway, canceling it early could free up the plane.

“It's a really complex set of considerations that we make,” Peyton said.

Bangs said various aircraft models could be used interchangeably on land routes, so specific routes would not necessarily be disproportionately affected by the suspension of service.

He noted that Alaska, whose main hub is Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, could also face additional delays related to a winter storm in the Pacific Northwest.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told reporters in Washington on Wednesday that the CEOs of Alaska and United had “confirmed their commitment to taking care of passengers” whose flights were canceled as part of the Max 9 grounding.

Buttigieg noted that unlike a weather-related cancellation, this situation should be considered “controllable,” meaning customers are entitled to compensation.

January is usually a slow time for airlines. If the disruption had occurred weeks earlier, during the holiday season, “it would have been a disaster,” said Helane Becker, an airline analyst at TD Cowen.

“It's unfortunate that it happened, but the fact that it happened now is better than if it had happened during a busier time,” Ms. Becker said.

Mark Walker and Niraj Chokshi contributed with reports.

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