Three weeks ago, retirees Joan and Gilbert Marin were traveling home to Riverside aboard a Boeing 737 Max 9 on Alaska Airlines. Suddenly, they heard a loud explosion and saw a gaping hole in the side of the plane two rows in front of them.
"The wind, the noise, the roar," said Joan Marin, 71. "Everything was rushing out."
Just ahead of the couple, a young man holding his cellphone had it sucked out of the plane, and the tremendous wind ripped the shirt off his back, she said. Joan's husband looked down at their dog, Toby, who was in a carrier at his feet.
"His eyes were bulging out," said Gilbert, 74. He lunged to hold onto their 13-year-old dog, fearing the force from the blowout "was going to suck him right under the seat and everything."
This week, Federal Aviation Administration officials announced that Boeing 737 Max 9 planes would be allowed to fly again, following an inspection and maintenance process for the 171 aircraft grounded following the Jan. 5 flight. Most of those planes belong to Alaska Airlines and United Airlines.
Alaska's first Max 9 flight since the blowout departed Friday, landing in San Diego in the early evening.
“Let me be clear: This won’t be back to business as usual for Boeing,” FAA Administrator Mike Whitaker said in a statement Wednesday.
“The quality assurance issues we have seen are unacceptable,” he added. “That is why we will have more boots on the ground closely scrutinizing and monitoring production and manufacturing activities.”
As airlines prepare to return planes to service, the National Transportation Safety Board investigation into the Flight 1282 midair cabin panel blowout is ongoing.
"Our long-term focus is on improving our quality so that we can regain the confidence of our customers, our regulator and the flying public," Stan Deal, Boeing Commercial Airplanes president and chief executive, wrote in a message to employees Friday evening. "Frankly, we have disappointed and let them down."
Boeing has promised to cooperate with the investigation. Following the incident, Chief Executive David Calhoun acknowledged that “a quality escape” had occurred, telling employees, "This event can never happen again.”
"This blowout — we’ve seen this pattern before. Something big happens, and Boeing makes all of these promises," said Ed Pierson, a former senior manager at the company's 737 factory. "Then what happens is that it fades in memory, and then Boeing asks for special exemptions and special treatment from the FAA. And the cycle continues."
The safety problems on the Boeing Max planes go far beyond this one incident, said Pierson, the executive director of the Foundation for Aviation Safety, a watchdog group that has tried to bring public attention to issues related to Boeing 737 Max 8 crashes in 2018 and 2019 that killed 346 people. In September, the group published a study that found airlines filed more than 1,300 reports about serious safety problems on Max 8 and Max 9 planes to the FAA.
"These same issues that were there in 2018 and 2019 [at Boeing] that were the precursors to the accidents are still there," Pierson said. "This is a culture where money is everything. They measure success by how many airplanes are delivered, instead of how many quality airplanes are delivered. … When you factor all of this together, it’s just a disaster waiting to happen."
Boeing did not comment on Pierson's remarks.
Alaska Airlines announced Friday that it had completed inspections on a first group of Max 9s that were returning to service, starting with Flight 1146 from Seattle to San Diego on Friday afternoon. The flight departed more than an hour late, according to FlightAware.
“Each of our 737-9 MAX [planes] will return to service only after the rigorous inspections are completed and each plane is deemed airworthy according to FAA requirements,” Alaska said in a statement.
On Wednesday, United Airlines told employees that the company planned to return their Max 9s to the skies on Sunday. Both it and Alaska had reported finding loose bolts on Max 9 planes during in-house inspections in the weeks following the Jan. 5 flight.
“In the days ahead, our teams will continue to proceed in a way that is thorough and puts safety and compliance first,” United Chief Operations Officer Toby Enqvist wrote in a message to employees.
Deal, the Boeing executive, said the company had taken "immediate actions to strengthen quality assurance and controls across our factories."
"We are deeply sorry for the significant disruption and frustration for our customers, some of whom have been publicly and unfairly criticized," he wrote to employees.
Meanwhile, the Marins said they're still reliving the incident and want answers.
"What we want to see is the airline and Boeing step up and accept responsibility and say, 'This is what went wrong, this is how we’re going to make sure it never happens again," said Nick Rowley, an attorney representing the Riverside couple, who noted they had not taken any legal action as of yet.
Next week, Joan Marin plans to fly on Alaska again, this time from Los Angeles to Hawaii.
"I did look to see what kind of plane it was to make sure it wasn’t a Max 9," she said.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.