The CEO of Alaska Airlines said new, in-house inspections of the carrier’s Boeing 737 Max 9 planes in the wake of a near-disaster earlier this month revealed that “many” of the aircraft were found to have loose bolts.
In an exclusive interview with NBC News senior correspondent Tom Costello, Alaska Airlines CEO Ben Minicucci discussed the findings of his company’s inspections so far since the Jan. 5 incident, in which a panel on one of its Max 9 jets blew out midair on a flight carrying 177 people.
“I’m more than frustrated and disappointed,” he said. “I am angry. This happened to Alaska Airlines. It happened to our guests and happened to our people. And — my demand on Boeing is what are they going to do to improve their quality programs in-house.”
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Following the incident, the Federal Aviation Administration ordered all Boeing Max 9 planes grounded and launched a safety investigation. The agency also announced an audit of Boeing’s Max 9 production line and suppliers ‘to evaluate Boeing’s compliance with its approved quality procedures.’ It is also subjecting Boeing, as well as its third-party suppliers, to additional increased monitoring.
The incident also prompted lawmakers to question whether Boeing’s quality control systems are adequate.
“Given the previous tragic crashes of Boeing 737 Max aircraft, we are deeply concerned that the loose bolts represent a systemic issue with Boeing’s capabilities to manufacture safe airplanes,” Sens. Ed Markey, J.D. Vance and Peter Welch wrote to Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun earlier this month.
There is still no timetable for returning the Boeing-made planes to service because the FAA has not yet issued specific maintenance orders that are required for them to do so.
As a result, Alaska Airlines, whose fleet had the highest percentage of Max 9 planes among any major carrier, has spent weeks canceling and rearranging its schedule, leaving thousands of passengers scrambling.
Minicucci said the onus is now on Boeing to show how it will improve its quality control and prevent such incidents from unfolding in the future. But out of an abundance of caution, he said, Alaska Airlines is incorporating its own additional oversight on the production line at Boeing.
‘We’re sending our audit people to audit their quality control systems and processes to make sure that every aircraft that comes off that production line, that comes to Alaska has the highest levels of excellence and quality,’ he said.
United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby said in a separate interview with CNBC on Wednesday that it is now contemplating a future for its fleet without the Boeing 737 Max 10, a newer version of the popular jet.
United has also said that it found additional loose bolts on its Max 9 planes.
Minicucci told NBC’s Costello that while Alaska Airlines ‘was’ planning to buy Max 10s, the company will now evaluate ‘what the best long-term strategic plan is for Alaska(‘s) fleet mix’ once the craft is certified.
‘I think everything’s open at this point … for us,’ he said, confirming that Hawaiian Airlines, which Alaska Airlines is in the process of buying, uses planes produced by Boeing’s rival, Airbus. ‘I think we’re going to do what’s best for Alaska long term, in terms of fleet mix for us. It gives us optionality.’
In a statement to NBC News, Boeing said: “We have let down our airline customers and are deeply sorry for the significant disruption to them, their employees and their passengers. We are taking action on a comprehensive plan to bring these airplanes safely back to service and to improve our quality and delivery performance. We will follow the lead of the FAA and support our customers every step of the way.”
Boeing has lost 19% of its market capitalization over the past month.
Minicucci, who became president of Alaska Airlines in 2016 and began his career as an engineer, said he was ‘incredulous’ that something like the incident earlier this month could even happen.
‘I knew that this was an issue out of the (Boeing) factory,’ he said. ‘There was no question in my mind.’
‘And it’s clear to me that we received an airplane from Boeing with a faulty door. Now the NTSB investigation is going to figure out why that was a faulty door, whether it was bad installation, missing hardware, a manufacturing issue, but there’s no doubt that Alaska received an airplane off the production line with a faulty door,’ Minicucci said, referring to the National Transportation Safety Board’s probe.