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CEO says Boeing must acknowledge ‘our mistake’ as 737 Max 9 jets are grounded

<span>Photograph: NTSB/Reuters</span>
Photograph: NTSB/Reuters

Boeing must acknowledge “our mistake”, its CEO has said, after the cabin panel of a 737 Max 9 jet blew off during an Alaska Airlines flight last week.

Dozens of Max 9 planes have been grounded following the incident, awaiting inspection amid heightened concerns around safety. Alaska and United Airlines have since both found loose parts on several jets.

Regulators have stressed that passenger safety, “not speed”, will determine how soon they return to the skies.

“We’re going to approach this – number one – acknowledging our mistake,” Dave Calhoun told Boeing employees at an all-hands meeting at its factory in Renton, Washington, where 737s are assembled, on Tuesday. “We’re going to approach it with 100% and complete transparency every step of the way.”

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Related: Airlines United and Alaska find loose bolts on Boeing 737 Max 9 planes

He described his own reaction to a picture of Friday’s Alaska Airlines airlines flight showing the missing section of the fuselage, and his concern that someone could have been in the adjacent seat. It was, as it happened, empty.

“I’ve got kids, I’ve got grandkids, and so do you,” Calhoun said, according to a transcript shared by Boeing. “This stuff matters. Every detail matters.”

The plane maker’s response to the fallout from its latest crisis contrasts starkly to how it initially responded to the crashes of two Max 8 jets, in 2018 and 2019, in which 346 people were killed.

It spent months largely failing to acknowledge blame, and a congressional report blamed a “culture of concealment” for the fatal crashes. The company later said it would have made a different decision “if we could go back”.

Boeing has yet to finalise a set of instructions for inspections and maintenance of the grounded Max 9 jets with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The group submitted an “initial version” which is now being revised following feedback, according to the agency, which pledged to conduct a “thorough review” of its plan.

“Every Boeing 737-9 Max with a plug door will remain grounded until the FAA finds each can safely return to operation,” the FAA said in a statement issued shortly before Calhoun was due to address employees. “The safety of the flying public, not speed, will determine the timeline for returning the Boeing 737-9 Max to service.”

Boeing said: “We continue to be in close contact with our customers and the FAA on the required inspections. As part of the process, we are making updates based on their feedback and requirements.”

The FAA grounded 171 Max 9 jets over the weekend to allow for inspections. On Friday, a cabin panel blew out of a new Alaska Airlines 737 Max 9, shortly after it had taken off from Portland, Oregon, forcing an emergency landing. No serious injuries were reported. A chunk of the fuselage was recovered from an Oregon teacher’s backyard.

Ahead of the internal meeting, Calhoun stressed the need for Boeing to reinforce “our focus on and our commitment to safety, quality, integrity and transparency.

Boeing revealed on Tuesday that it delivered 528 planes in total last year, ramping up from 480 in 2022. It also booked 1,314 net new orders, from 774 the previous year.

The FAA is also facing scrutiny. Reuters reported that the regulator’s new head, Mike Whitaker, is set to appear before Congress next month, on 6 February, amid questions over its oversight of Boeing.

JD Vance, the Republican senator, said: “The FAA has assured me the 737 Max is safe – last week’s near catastrophe calls that determination into question.”

Vance argued that the Senate’s commerce committee should schedule a hearing to evaluate incidents involving the Max, as well as the FAA’s supervision, “as soon as possible”.

Shares in Boeing, which fell sharply on Monday following concern over the safety of the 737 Max 9, declined further on Tuesday.