The Boeing 737-9 Max was cleared by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) this week to return to scheduled service for the first time since a harrowing Alaska Airlines incident on January 5 cast doubt on the plane’s safety. Both Alaska and United, the only two U.S. carriers that operate the model, said that flights on the Max 9 will start as early as this weekend. But the question remains: Will passengers also return, or will they steer clear of the troubled jet?
Just how fliers feel about this particular plane, or about flying in general, may not be clear for weeks or even months, if the previous Max grounding in 2019 following two fatal accidents is any indication. When that plane, the Max 8 version, returned to the skies in 2021, lingering concerns led some airlines like American to alert customers if they’d been booked on that plane, giving them the option of switching flights without penalty. This time around, Alaska and United are both offering waivers to passengers if they want to change or cancel flights that are scheduled on a Max 9, but only for a short period (although it could be extended depending on what the airlines decide).
As the Max 9 resumes service (there are 215 aircraft in this series in service worldwide, and 144 of them are in the United States), the FAA is taking pains to reassure nervous passengers.
“We made clear this aircraft would not go back into service until it was safe,” FAA administrator Mike Whitaker said in announcing the news this week. “The exhaustive, enhanced review our team completed after several weeks of information gathering gives me and the FAA confidence to proceed to the inspection and maintenance phase.”
How they’re inspecting Boeing 737-9 Max planes
Each plane that gets the all-clear will have had to pass inspection under close supervision, focusing on the plug door (a piece of fuselage covering an unused emergency exit door) that blew out on the Alaska Airlines flight minutes after the plane had taken off from Portland, Oregon. The FAA checks took up to 12 hours in some cases.
The FAA’s move, however, wasn’t a wholehearted endorsement: “This won’t be back to business as usual for Boeing,” Whitaker added, announcing that the agency would not approve any expansion in production lines for the 737 Max “until we are satisfied that the quality control issues uncovered during this process are resolved.”
United Airlines also added a cautionary note in its announcement that Max 9 flights could resume as early as this Sunday, January 28, adding that it will “put safety and compliance first” as it proceeds with the necessary checks.
“We will only return each Max 9 to service once this thorough inspection process is complete,” Toby Enqvist, United’s executive vice president and chief operations officer, said in a statement. Both United, which has 79 Max 9s, and Alaska, which has 65 Max 9s, have reported finding loose bolts in the panels as they examined their fleets.
Alaska Airlines described in detail its inspection process for each of the two door plugs on the Boeing 737-9 Max planes—there’s one on the left side of the plane and one on the right toward the middle of the cabin. The airline stated:
- “Before opening the mid-cabin door plug, we will confirm it was properly installed by ensuring all hardware is in place and all clearances are measured and recorded.
- We will then open the door plug and inspect for any damages or abnormalities to the door and seal components, including the guide fittings, roller guides, and hinges, and inspect nut plates and fasteners.
- We will resecure each door plug and ensure it is sealed properly per approved FAA guidance before the aircraft is returned to service.”
Alaska also noted that each inspection takes up to 12 hours for each aircraft. “Each of our 737-9 Max will return to service only after the rigorous inspections are completed and each plane is deemed airworthy according to FAA requirements,” Alaska stated.
Experts predict that with the added scrutiny and the overall high level of safety in aviation, public confidence should return.
“Yes, there will be people who will avoid the Max 9 or will say, ‘I don’t want to sit anywhere near that plug,’ but keep in mind these doors are going to be heavily scrutinized,” said Kathleen Bangs, a former commercial airline pilot with years of experience on Boeing jets.
How to know if you’re scheduled to fly on a Boeing 737-9 Max
There has been a recent rise in interest in travelers wanting to know what model aircraft they are flying on, which in the past was almost an afterthought in the booking process, after pricing and schedule.
Indeed, some travelers are searching away from Boeing Max flights. Flight aggregator Kayak, for example, introduced an aircraft filter in early 2019, and the company said it noticed a spike in Max filter usage earlier this month following the Alaska Airlines accident. Specifically, users can filter to include or exclude certain aircraft models, including the Boeing 737-8 Max and the Boeing 737-9 Max planes. As a result, Kayak said it moved its filter up on the webpage to make it easier for consumers to find when searching for a flight, although the most used filters in searches continue to be price and schedule.
Nearly every airline lists the type of aircraft it will be flying. You’ll typically find airplane information displayed just below the flight details when selecting your flights during the booking process. Similarly, when you search for a flight using a travel search engine such as Google Flights, the exact airplane model will be listed below each flight segment, in smaller type, alongside the airline operating the flight.
If the plane type is still unclear, type in your origin, destination, and date of travel on the ITA Matrix, a flight search engine. Once you find your flight, click on the details arrow to the far right to find out exactly what type of plane you’re booked on.
Aviation sites like flight tracking site FlightAware.com, as well as many online booking sites, have all made it much easier for consumers to find out exactly what plane type they’re booked on, even down to the tail number (which can sometimes give you the age and other data specific to that aircraft).
Bottom line, while travelers may feel nervous as the Max 9 takes back to the skies, airlines and regulators are doing everything in their power to assure the public that flying still remains one of the safest modes of transportation.
And industry experts concur. Says John Goglia, an aviation consultant and former member of the National Transportation Safety Board, “Countries such as the U.S., with serious government oversight and a highly trained airline workforce, have an outstanding aviation safety record.”