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The Questions in the Wake of Boeing’s Plug-Door Fiasco
January 19, 2024

The Questions in the Wake of Boeing’s Plug-Door Fiasco

Reading Time: 7 minutes

The Only Thing That Saved Boeing’s Fiasco From Becoming a Disaster, 737 MAX 9 grounding: What the plug-door fiasco on Alaska 1282 means for Boeing’s future.

By now, you probably know the flight number Alaska Airlines 1282. On Jan. 5, shortly after takeoff from Portland, Oregon, a plug door on the flight’s Boeing 737 MAX 9 jet blew out, causing an uncontrolled decompression of the plane.

The plane was just a few months old, and the airline had just put it into service in November. But it’s also part of a family of airplanes with a tragic history. In 2018 and 2019, two Boeing 737 MAX 8 jets crashed right after takeoff, killing 346 people. In response, all Boeing MAX jets were grounded, returning to service only after Boeing repaired the flight control system that was blamed for the crashes, changed its operating manuals, and increased pilot training.

After the most recent Boeing incident, the Federal Aviation Administration grounded MAX 9 planes with door plugs, saying, ‘Only the safety of the flying public will determine when the plane returns to service.’ On Friday’s episode of What Next: TBD, I spoke with Jon Ostrower, editor in chief of the Air Current, about what happened in the factory, in the air, and in Boeing’s boardroom to reach this critical point. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Lizzie O’Leary: A lot of people might be hearing about the 737 MAX 9 for the first time as a result of this incident. Could you introduce me to this aircraft?

Jon Ostrower: The 737 MAX is made up of five different airplanes. The first one flew for the first time in 2016; it’s called the MAX 8. It’s the leadoff and most popular version of the airplane. Boeing followed with the MAX 9, which is a stretched version, meaning the fuselage is longer, so there are more passengers that can sit in the cabin. Boeing followed that with another model for Ryanair, to fit a whole heck of a lot of people in a small tube. And there are two other models that are still pending FAA certification, and it remains a gigantic question as to whether this whole incident is going to affect their arrival.

The piece that blew explosively out of Alaska 1282 is alternately called a door plug, a plug door, a plug exit. … That’s not a very helpful description if you aren’t someone who spends a lot of time around aircraft. What is this thing?

A plug exit is literally a piece of airplane structure that fits into a large open-door frame on the side of the airplane in the back half of the fuselage. What’s the purpose of this? If you are Alaska Airlines and you want to fly 178 people from JFK to Seattle, you don’t need that plug door to be an emergency exit. If you go above 189 seats, per the regulations, that door needs to actually be an exit that can be operated by either passengers or flight attendants in case of emergency. What airlines like United and Alaska have done is they’ve had the plug option, and so on one side it looks like a door where you can see a faint cutout in the metal; it’s got a regular window. But on the opposite side, passengers have no awareness of it being there. It is intended to be just a blank part of the cabin where you just have a side wall and a window.

While it’s a Boeing jet, the plane’s fuselage was made by Spirit AeroSystems. Spirit used to be a part of Boeing, but it was spun off back in 2005. The company makes about 70 percent of every 737 aircraft and occupies a sprawling factory in Wichita, Kansas. Tell me about the history of that factory and the manufacturing process.

This is where the U.S. built B-29s and B-17s during World War II, and it’s been repurposed, been sourced for commercial aircraft, and been an integral part of every single airplane that Boeing has done throughout its history. In 2005 Boeing spun off their Wichita fabrication division, and that became Spirit AeroSystems. The thinking around the strategy at that point, why they would do it, is because, No. 1, they were trying to raise funds to pay for the development of the 787 Dreamliner, but also, they were adopting a strategy to reduce the amount of assets that the company had on its books while delivering the same number of airplanes.

Spirit was established with guaranteed work on the 737, 747, 757, 767, 777, and 787. So, Boeing and Spirit are wed for life. Boeing can’t do anything without Spirit; Spirit can’t survive without Boeing. But the relationship over time has ebbed and flowed with genuine vitriol and lawsuits and acrimony—and also cooperation and enthusiasm. It’s a very troubled marriage with no chance of divorce.

Last week, you broke the story that United Airlines, in inspecting its 737 MAX 9 fleet, found loose bolts and other parts on plug exits of at least five aircraft. Doesn’t that point to a manufacturing issue?

Yes. What has gone on in those factories is going to be central to answering what happened to this Alaska flight.

But the questions that come off of this are not about just solving this discrete problem. Fundamentally, this is about asking whether Boeing’s strategy and how it has conducted itself over the last 20-plus years are producing the results it wants. And by all accounts, in the conversations that I’ve had with executives both past and present, both at Boeing’s most important customers, suppliers, stakeholders, … no, it’s not. They are getting the opposite results of what they want, given the tumult and the instability that continues to absolutely ravage this company.

Just before we sat down to talk, you broke another story that the undamaged plug door, the one opposite from the one that blew out on the Alaska plane, had its fasteners tightened during assembly at Boeing, after it had left Spirit. Can you explain the significance of what that means?

During the manufacturing process, there are multiple quality checks. There are quality checks when the fuselage leaves Spirit, and Boeing goes through both initial and final quality checks. When Boeing first got the fuselage, staff noted that there was a discrepancy in a piece of the structure that surrounds the plug door. Think of the doorframe: There is a little plate on either side that holds a key piece that the plug sits on, and that plate has four fasteners on each side. And Boeing personnel very crucially tightened six out of those eight total fasteners. How loose they were is not 100 percent clear, but Boeing noted it as a defect that needed to be fixed. And it was.

We don’t know the direct connection or what effect that had on what happened on the other side of the airplane, but what we do know was that there were discrepant parts that came through Boeing’s production system on this particular airplane that required attention. What happened after that, or whether similar attention was given to the other side, … the timing of that isn’t clear.

There are quality checks that happen in a production system of this level of complexity. It’s Boeing’s job—and also the FAA’s job as a final clearance on every delivery—to make sure that everything meets the proper specification. You’re building something as complex as a commercial aircraft—there are going to be things that are out of place when you’re building. That’s really normal. The question is: What do you do about it? How do you make sure that by the time it gets handed over to Alaska Airlines, United Airlines or whomever, it’s not there? That’s the art of manufacturing: It’s seeing defects and making sure that you can tackle them within a system that you’ve created.

There are so many different threads to this story, but it is impossible to talk about the Boeing 737 MAX and not think about the two crashes of MAX 8 that killed 346 people in 2018 and 2019. I don’t want to conflate something that shouldn’t be conflated, but it does make me wonder if this is part of a larger question about Boeing.

The end result of this Alaska flight was luck. You can safely call it a miracle that no one lost their life. They were only at 16,000 feet. By some incredible coincidence, there was no one in those two seats at the window and the aisle. It could have been very, very significantly worse. I had one senior airline executive effectively say to me, ‘It was just sheer luck that the door didn’t come off and hit the vertical or horizontal stabilizer of the airplane,’ which potentially would’ve caused a loss of control. Luck is the only way it can be described at this point.

When you look at the performance of Boeing, they’ve had issues across numerous programs that have ranged from very expensive to astronomically expensive in terms of its reputation in Washington and with its customers. Clearly, something is wrong here. And that is not just a question of How do you get to solving this particular situation, this plug door, and making sure the quality is what you expect, but also How does Boeing move forward through the rest of the decade and beyond as an enterprise? And that’s going to be the fundamental question coming out of this that stretches way beyond just the plug door.

What’s so striking is that we have been here before, right? There were congressional hearings. Boeing got a new CEO. The whole thing was We are going to move on from this troubled period, and yet here we are, in another troubled period.

Yeah, it’s not working. That is going to be the soul-searching, the real, genuine soul-searching—not the press release, talking-point soul-searching that we’ve seen a lot of. There have been changes inside Boeing, don’t get me wrong. There’s a chief safety officer; there are reorganizations for the engineering organization too in terms of how they report through the safety organization. But those are tactical changes. Fundamentally, Boeing’s strategy has not changed in the past 20-plus years in terms of how it works with suppliers, how it works with airlines, how it works with government, how it works with labor. And that is the place that Boeing has to be looking—how it repairs not just its reputation with the public but its own universe of stakeholders that rely on it to be healthy and deliver a safe product.


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