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Safety Concerns Surrounding Boeing 737 Max 9: What Air Travelers Should Know

A hole in the fuselage of a Boeing 737 Max 9
National Transportation Safety Board

Here’s everything you need to know.

(CNN) – A terrifying Alaska Airlines incident on January 5 that left a hole in the fuselage of a Boeing 737 Max 9 aircraft shortly after takeoff from Portland, Oregon, has raised safety questions and put many would-be air travelers on edge.

Investigators are looking closely at the failure of a mid-cabin door plug that detached during the flight, leading the Federal Aviation Administration to ground all US 737 Max 9 aircraft that have the door plug feature until the aircraft can be thoroughly inspected.

More than two weeks after the Alaska Airlines incident, the FAA put out a new safety alert about an earlier generation of the 737 — the Boeing 737-900ER.

“The Boeing 737-900ER is not part of the newer Max fleet but has the same door plug design,” the US aviation regulator said in the safety alert. The FAA called for the visual inspection of the mid-exit door plugs “as an added layer of safety.”

Here’s what we know so far about how the 737 situation affects air travelers and what those affected by cancellations and delays can do:

How long will Max 9 planes be grounded?

The timeline for a return to service is unclear. More than 170 of the Boeing 737 Max 9s remain grounded in the United States.

The FAA’s Emergency Airworthiness Directive prohibits flight by US airlines or in US territory of all Boeing 737 Max 9 aircraft that have a mid-cabin door plug installed until they pass inspection.

Alaska Airlines said in a statement on January 20 that the airline had completed preliminary inspections on a group of their Max 9 aircraft. The airline said it had shared the information with Boeing, which would share it with the FAA for “further analysis and consultation.”

“We’re awaiting the next steps based on this collection of new information, including the final inspection orders so we can begin safely returning our planes to service,” Alaska Airlines’ statement said.

United Airlines also flies the Max 9. The airline said Monday it has pulled the aircraft from service through January 26.

The FAA says “the safety of the flying public, not speed” will determine how long it takes to get the Max 9 back in service.

“All 737-9 MAX aircraft with door plugs will remain grounded pending the FAA’s review and final approval of an inspection and maintenance process that satisfies all FAA safety requirements,” the agency said in a January 17 update.

What about the Boeing 737-900ER — is that model grounded?

No, the 737-900ER is not grounded. The FAA issued what is called Safety Alert for Operators (SAFO) on January 21 recommending that operators inspect “locations where a bolt/nut/pin installation is used to secure the door to the airframe, as soon as possible.”

The alert noted that some operators of the 737-900ER had “noted findings with bolts” during inspections. The regulator did not specify what the findings were.

The 737-900ER is not part of the Boeing’s Max family. It’s a previous generation of the 737 that uses the same door plug design on aircraft where fewer seats result in the plugging of what would be used as an evacuation route on a plane carrying more passengers.

In the US, Alaska, United Airlines and Delta Air Lines fly the 737-900ER model. More than half of the close to 500 Boeing 737-900ER aircraft in service globally are operated by these three airlines, according to data from Cirium. Lion Air in Indonesia also operates a significant number (65, according to the airline’s website) of 737-900ER aircraft.

United and Delta Airlines told CNN Monday that they had already started inspections of their Boeing 737-900ER aircraft and did not anticipate any disruptions to operations.

Alaska said in a statement it began inspecting its 737-900ER planes several days ago and had “no findings” so far. It expects to complete the remainder of its 737-900ER inspections without pulling the planes from service.

Lion Air did not immediately respond to CNN’s request for more information about its 737-900ER fleet.

The FAA order applies to the US. What about operations of this model elsewhere?

The FAA order grounded 171 of the world’s 737 Max 9 aircraft. There are 215 in service.

Some international carriers operate Max 9s that are not affected because they don’t have a mid-cabin door plug. Some other airlines, flying aircraft with the door plugs, followed the FAA’s lead and grounded their planes. Those include Aeromexico, Copa Airlines in Panama and Turkish Airlines.

While the FAA does not have authority over the operation of aircraft operated by some international carriers, those airlines often follow the agency’s lead. “The world still looks to the FAA … as the gold standard,” according to Kathleen Bangs, an aviation expert and former commercial airline pilot.

Lion Air has inspected three Max 9s that it said had different configurations from the Alaska Airlines plane and returned them to service, according to Reuters.

What do I do if my flight is canceled because of the grounding of the 737 Max 9?

First off, you can get a refund.

“Under federal law, if an airline cancels or significantly changes your flight – no matter the cause – you’re entitled to a full cash refund if you choose not to travel,” said Scott Keyes, founder of travel site Going, in an email interview with CNN Travel.

“This is true across the board, even if you booked a nonrefundable fare (as most tickets are) and even if you’re in basic economy,” he said.

If you still want to make the trip, “the airline will reaccommodate you on a different flight,” Keyes said. “The simplest way to do this is self-service through the airline’s mobile app (which have gotten quite good in the past year or two), or you can call up the airline and an agent will rebook you free of charge.”

The two US carriers operating affected planes, Alaska Airlines and United, are offering refunds or waived fees to some passengers.

Is it still safe to fly?

David Soucie, an aviation safety analyst for CNN and former FAA safety inspector, said shortly after the Alaska Airlines incident that he was taking a wait-and-see approach on the Boeing 737 Max 9.

“I haven’t made the decision to not fly in this aircraft if it’s returned to service,” he said in an interview on CNN on January 8.

Bangs, the former airline pilot, said she understands “why people are frustrated – and nervous – about this,” noting that it’s just been a couple of years since another member of the Max family of aircraft, the Boeing 737 Max 8, was returned to service after being grounded for nearly two years. That followed two fatal crashes attributed to problems with the aircraft’s automated Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS.

Bangs said she was impressed with the FAA’s “right decision” to quickly ground the Max 9 on January 6, a move it was slow in making for the Max 8. She said that industry members were hoping that the issue with the Alaska Airlines plane was a one-off involving a single occurrence that somehow weakened its structure.

But United and Alaska Airlines both reported additional jets with loose hardware upon inspection a few days after the plug separated from the Alaska plane’s fuselage.

“And so now we know we have a quality control problem because these are airplanes produced at different times, you know, different deliveries and at different airlines,” Bangs said.

But Bangs believes that authorities will ensure that all of the door plugs are secure, “but I certainly understand, when you add that to the problems of the Max 8, why people are getting nervous about flying on this particular version of the 737.”

Bangs said she’s not nervous because most of the pilots she’s talked to who fly this model like the planes. And she added that she’s confident that once an issue has been identified and addressed, it is safe.

She said she would also have “no hesitation” on flying aboard a 737-900ER.

“The 737-900ER fleet has safely flown over ten million flight hours, so if there were any widespread cause for concern, an issue with the door plugs would probably have already surfaced,” Bangs said, adding that it makes sense that the FAA called for door plug inspections on these planes, given the design similarity of the component to the Max 9.

How can passengers figure out what type of plane they’ll be on?

Bangs pointed out potential passengers can see what kind of equipment the flight is operating on in the “details” section when they book flights.

FlightAware’s Where is My Plane feature will also provide the specific airplane model and tail number registration.

Keyes explained that “when you purchase a flight, it will say on your receipt what aircraft you’re scheduled to fly (typically near the flight number).”

But be prepared for last-minute changes, Keyes warned. “Do note that aircraft swaps happen occasionally; what you were originally scheduled to fly is usually but not always the same model you ultimately fly.”

In that case, Bangs said passengers can use the tail number of the plane at the gate to double-check the type of aircraft.

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