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The Boeing 737 Max 9 takes off again, but the company faces more turbulence ahead

A Boeing 737 MAX 9 for Alaska Airlines is pictured along with other aircraft at Renton Municipal Airport adjacent to Boeing's factory in Washington. Alaska Airlines resumed service of its 737 MAX 9 fleet on January 26, 2024, three weeks after an emergency landing prompted sweeping inspections of the aircraft.
Jason Redmond
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AFP via Getty Images
A Boeing 737 MAX 9 for Alaska Airlines is pictured along with other aircraft at Renton Municipal Airport adjacent to Boeing's factory in Washington. Alaska Airlines resumed service of its 737 MAX 9 fleet on January 26, 2024, three weeks after an emergency landing prompted sweeping inspections of the aircraft.

PORTLAND, Ore. — It's been three weeks since Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 took off from Portland International Airport, and then quickly returned without a door plug panel.

Now some of the first Boeing 737 Max 9 flights are departing from the same airport, and Alaska Airlines customers know it.

"I never paid any attention until this happened as to what I was flying in," said Corrie Savio.

Her traveling companion, James Vanarsdel, said the incident changed his opinion of Boeing, making him reluctant to fly on a Max 9 now.

"Until I am confident that the problem has been fixed," he said. "And I still don't think it has."

No one was seriously injured when the door plug panel blew off the Alaska Airlines plane in midair. But the latest incident on a Boeing Max jet has renewed big questions about the company's quality control.

Industry analysts say Boeing has even bigger problems as it struggles to hold on to its share of the market for commercial planes.

"People are focused on one incident, which is embarrassing," said Richard Aboulafia, the managing director of AeroDynamic Advisory. "But it's actually been a series of incidents and it's worse than that."

Boeing has failed to learn from two deadly crashes of 737 Max 8 jets in 2018 and 2019 that killed 346 people, Aboulafia argues. The company's management is so focused on cutting costs and speeding up production, he says, that it's lost sight of the basics, like safety and quality control.

"It's a broader company problem," Aboulafia said. "A management culture that under-resources and misunderstands what the people who build the planes actually need to do their job."

This week, Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun was doing damage control on Capitol Hill.

"We believe in our airplanes," he told reporters between private meetings with lawmakers. "We have confidence in the safety of our airplanes. And that's what all of this is about."

On Thursday, Boeing held what it called a "quality stand down" at its 737 factory in Renton, Wash. part of an effort to show that the company is committed to improving quality.

But it will take more than that to satisfy its customers. Alaska Airlines, for one, was the butt of the joke on Saturday Night Live last weekend.

"Our new slogan is Alaska Airlines: You didn't die and you got a cool story," said a cast member dressed as an Alaska employee.

"You know those bolts that, like, hold the plane together? We're going to go ahead and tighten some of those," another cast member said.

Alaska CEO Ben Minicucci was not laughing when he talked to investors this week. He says the company lost $150 million because of the grounding. Minicucci said the airline will try to recoup that money from Boeing, and it will push the company to improve quality control.

"We're going to hold Boeing's feet to the fire to make sure that we get good airplanes out of that factory," Minicucci said.

Regulators at the Federal Aviation Administration want to do the same. They've taken the highly unusual step of setting production caps — both on the Max 9 and 8, and two other 737 models that are awaiting approval from regulators, including the smaller Max 7 and the larger Max 10.

"Basically what the FAA has said is slow down," said Kathleen Bangs, an aviation safety analyst and a former commercial pilot who spoke to NPR's Morning Edition. "You're not going to expand the production line right now. And obviously, that's going to hurt Boeing's bottom line."

It gets even worse for Boeing. The company had been seeking an exemption from federal safety rules so that it could begin delivering the Max 7 this spring. But opposition to that is mounting in the wake of the door plug incident.

This comes as Boeing is steadily losing market share to its main rival, Airbus. Analyst Richard Aboulafia says Boeing management doesn't have a new plane on the drawing board to compete.

"They're not investing in the future," Aboulafia said. "If you're not investing in the workforce, it stands to reason, you're also cutting costs in terms of product development. And that is seriously weighing against their market share with Airbus."

If there's a silver lining for Boeing, it's that most airlines can't easily switch over to buy from Airbus, because the backlog for new orders is massive.

That means airlines have no choice but to stick with Boeing if they want new planes before the end of the decade. And ultimately, travelers may not have much choice, either.

NPR's Joel Rose reported from Washington, D.C. and Tom Goldman contributed from Portland, Ore. contributed to this story

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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