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United cancels more Houston flights Tuesday as Boeing 737 Max 9 jets remain grounded

Both United and Alaska Airlines, which utilize the new aircraft, said initial inspections revealed loose hardware on some of the planes in question. The airlines cancelled hundreds of flights Monday and Tuesday after a door panel on a Max 9 flew off mid-flight last week in Oregon.

Boeing Faulty Door
(National Transportation Safety Board via AP)
In this photo released by the National Transportation Safety Board, NTSB Investigator-in-Charge John Lovell examines the fuselage plug area of Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 on Sunday, Jan. 7, 2024, in Portland, Ore. A panel used to plug an area reserved for an exit door on the Boeing 737 Max 9 jetliner blew out Friday night shortly after the flight took off from Portland, forcing the plane to return to Portland International Airport.

United Airlines continued to cancel flights Tuesday in Houston and beyond as its fleet of Boeing 737 Max 9 jets remained grounded and under inspection, with the company saying its initial findings revealed loose bolts on some door plugs.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) ordered all those Boeing aircraft, which started circulating into use in November, to be removed from service, inspected and remedied after a fuselage panel blew off an Alaska Airlines flight last Friday shortly after the plane took off from Portland, Oregon. Pilots subsequently landed the plane without anyone on board being seriously injured, but the incident has prompted scrutiny over safety concerns and impacted travel across the United States, including in Houston.

Chicago-based United, a major operator at Houston's Bush Intercontinental Airport, cancelled more than 200 flights on Monday because of the issue and said it expected to have about 170 more Max 9-related cancellations on Tuesday. The airline noted in a statement it is avoiding about 45 additional cancellations Tuesday by using other aircraft.

"Since we began preliminary inspections on Saturday, we have found instances that appear to relate to installation issues in the door plug – for example, bolts that needed additional tightening," United said in its statement. "These findings will be remedied by our tech ops team to safely return the aircraft to service."

A total of 171 of the new Boeing jets are in circulation, with United using 79 of them and Alaska Airlines employing 65 of them, according to the Associated Press. Alaska Airlines publicized a similar problem with the planes' door plugs – which cover areas where emergency exit doors also can be placed – saying Monday night that "initial reports from our technicians indicate some loose hardware was visible on some aircraft."

Officials with the National Transportation Safety Board said Monday that the door panel slid up on rollers before flying off the plane last Friday, so investigators are looking into whether four bolts that were supposed to hold the panel in place might have been loose or missing, according to the AP.

Boeing said in a statement on its website it is keeping in "close contact" with impacted airlines and will "help address any and all findings." The jet manufacturer also said it planned to hold a company-wide meeting Tuesday that was focused on safety.

"We are committed to ensuring every Boeing airplane meets design specifications and the highest safety and quality standards," Boeing said. "We regret the impact this has had on our customers and their passengers."

Data from FlightAware.com shows that 264 United flights and 158 Alaska Airlines flights were cancelled on Monday, by far the most within the airline industry. Bush Airport in Houston had more cancellations than any other airport – 110 departing flights and 72 arriving flights – with rainy and stormy weather Monday also contributing.

United had cancelled an additional 211 flights as of 1 p.m. Tuesday, according to FlightAware, which showed another 108 cancellations for Alaska Airlines. The skies above Houston were clear Tuesday, but among all airlines, 58 flights to Bush Airport had been cancelled as of 1 p.m., along with an additional 24 flights originating from that airport.

United said in its Tuesday statement it is still awaiting final approval from the FAA on the "full inspection process" for the impacted aircraft. The FAA said on its website that all the Max 9 planes will remain grounded "until operators complete enhanced inspections which include both left and right cabin door exit plugs, door components and fasteners," adding that operators "must also complete corrective action requirements based on findings from the inspections."

For customers who were scheduled to fly on a Max 9 from last Saturday through this Wednesday, United is offering full refunds or waiving change fees and fare differences for those who wish to reschedule their trips as long as their new United flights depart by Jan. 18 and are between the same cities as originally booked.

"We're working to return our Boeing 737 Max 9s to service in the days ahead," United said.