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Inspections of grounded Boeing planes begin after a door plug blew off one in flight


The FAA says airlines can now start inspecting their grounded Boeing planes to get them back in the air. About 170 planes were removed from service after part of the fuselage on a Boeing 737 MAX 9 blew out on Friday night. Today United Airlines says it has found additional planes with loose bolts and possible installation issues in the same part of the plane. NPR's Joel Rose covers transportation. He is here now. Hi, Joel.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: OK. So what is the latest? Start with the grounded Boeing jets. What's going on?

ROSE: Yeah. United Airlines and Alaska Airlines are the two major U.S. carriers that fly these Boeing 737 MAX 9 jets that have this particular component that failed on Friday night. It's called a door plug. This is the component that blew off of an Alaska Airlines plane that had just taken off from Portland, Ore. Passengers and crew describe hearing a loud bang as this panel tore loose from the plane at 16,000 feet. The depressurization was violent enough to damage seats in the vicinity. Fortunately, the seats right next to the panel were empty, but cellphones and some other loose items were just sucked right out of the hole before the plane turned back to Portland and landed safely. This afternoon, United said it has already begun preliminary inspections of its grounded jets. United said in a statement that it's found loose bolts that needed tightening and other, quote, "installation issues," unquote, with the door plug.

KELLY: gosh. OK, and can I stop you there? Because I'm not sure I understand what a door plug is. You said it's a panel?

ROSE: Yeah. It's not really a door at all. It is a panel that is designed to fill a hole in the fuselage. And the hole is there so that Boeing can add an extra emergency exit to the plane as needed. Safety regulators require additional exits if the plane is carrying more than about 200 passengers. And if they're carrying less, airlines can get the plane with this door plug instead. Boeing has been using door plugs in some of its 737 planes for over a decade without any major safety incidents. Now, the good news, according to safety experts, is that investigators have recovered this particular door plug, which landed in the backyard of a schoolteacher outside of Portland.

KELLY: Oh, OK. So they have the door plug. What are they hoping to learn from it?

ROSE: Well, investigators are going to be focused on the condition of the door plug itself and the area where it attaches to the plane, also, the four bolts that connect the plug to the plane. I want to play you a cut from John Cox. He's a former pilot and now a safety consultant, and he spoke to NPR's Morning Edition earlier today.

JOHN COX: We're very fortunate they have found the plug itself. So they'll have both sides to be able to look at to see if there's marks from where the two pieces of metal moved against each other. All of those things they're going to look at to try to understand the forces that resulted in this plug leaving the airplane.

KELLY: That is the investigation latest. But, Joel, what has been the impact on air travel of all this?

ROSE: Well, both Alaska and United have canceled hundreds of flights today - more than any other airlines. Federal regulators say that those airlines can now officially begin inspecting their grounded planes. The inspections are expected to take about 4-8 hours per plane, according to the FAA. So, you know, we could start to see some of those planes come back online fairly soon - after, of course, any problems like loose bolts are repaired. The damage to Boeing's reputation is going to take a lot longer to repair, both with the flying public and with the airlines, who invest a huge amount of money in these planes - want them safely in the air as much as possible.

KELLY: NPR's Joel Rose. He covers transportation. Thank you.

ROSE: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF HI-TEK SONG, "ALL I NEED IS YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.