Photos show a door-sized hole in the plane’s wall, with oxygen masks dangling from the ceiling. A window tore out of the Boeing 737 Max 9, which was on its way from Portland to Ontario about a month ago, shortly after takeoff. The Alaska Airlines plane was able to land safely and no one was seriously injured. But for the US aircraft manufacturer Boeing, the incident joins a longer list of quality problems. Around four years after the fatal crashes of two jets from the 737 Max series and the subsequent collapse in share prices, the company appeared to be recovering.

The NTSB’s preliminary report on the incident now shows that Boeing is responsible for what happened. An aviation expert speaks to Capital of “massive quality problems” in control that are revealed by the new findings. Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun admitted blame for the incident after the report was published in January: “Whatever the final conclusions, Boeing is responsible for what happened. An incident like this is unacceptable on an aircraft that is ours Leaves the factory, does not happen.”

These serious quality defects are tarnishing the image of the former industry leader. Experts see confirmation that the problem is deeper, even if the financial impact may initially have been limited.

At the Boeing factory near Seattle, almost 38 aircraft are being built every month, but competitor Airbus has now overtaken Boeing – and is producing almost twice as many in the same time. Despite delivery delays, Boeing is trying to increase the pace of building its Max aircraft. The aircraft manufacturer only receives money upon delivery. The group’s free cash flow is expected to increase to $10 billion annually by 2026 – in 2022 it was less than $3 billion. The pace is therefore crucial for the company’s economic success. But is it possible that quality is also being sacrificed due to time pressure?

Boeing denies this and said safety remains its top priority. But not all investors believe that the aircraft manufacturer has everything under control – and there won’t be any more speed in production for the time being. The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) officially banned Boeing from increasing production of the 737 MAX from 38 to 50 aircraft per month as a result of the near-disaster in January.

The incident does affect an important Boeing supplier, Spirit Aerosystems, which builds the fuselage of the Max aircraft and then sends it to Seattle. But the preliminary report from the responsible investigative agency NTSB in the USA reveals that four important bolts were apparently missing from the torn out fuselage part of the Boeing 737-9 Max. There is a hole in the fuselage of the machine behind the wing, aviation expert Heinrich Großbongardt explains to Capital. If there are a larger number of passengers, an additional emergency exit can be installed there, otherwise the opening would be closed mechanically. According to initial findings, this closure was apparently not present, so the part came loose shortly after the machine started.

“It is simply inconceivable that the part was practically not attached at all,” says Großbongardt. “It is now clearer than ever that Boeing has serious quality control problems.” A few days after the incident, United Airlines and Alaska Airlines found loose screws while checking other Max planes – on the very fuselage component from which the window had broken out.

But this incident is far from the only one: In 2023, incorrectly drilled holes and improperly manufactured fittings were found on some Boeing aircraft. In 2018 and 2019, defective cockpit software on the 737 Max 8 even led to two planes crashing and 346 people dying.

In the US House of Representatives’ final report on the background to the two crashes, there was talk of cultural problems at Boeing. “The key findings of this report point to a corporate culture in dire need of a security reset,” the report concluded. Since the turn of the millennium, the company has focused too much on profit at the expense of safety.

At Boeing, fewer and fewer engineers were in charge because the separation between finance and technology was weakened. “This led to many wrong decisions in production and to quality deteriorating over a long period of time,” says Großbongardt, who was a spokesman at Boeing for ten years. “Now they’re trying to turn things back, but it’s a long way.” Another cultural problem is that there have been conflicts between Boeing and the unions for years, which have worsened the internal mood and motivation in the company.

171 737 Max aircraft had to remain on the ground for the time being, as ordered by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Other authorities around the world also banned them from flying. After all, the Max-9 currently only makes up around one percent of the global fleet anyway. In terms of seats, their share of global capacity is even smaller.

Maintenance of these retired machines will likely cost $18 million and take up to eight hours. The effort was significantly greater in 2019, when Max 8 machines were not allowed to start for almost two years. “Compared to what was going on with the Max a few years ago, this problem is rather small,” says Großbongardt. “But more could have happened. This is another additional scratch on Boeing’s reputation.”

A look at Boeing’s balance sheets shows that the company has some catching up to do when it comes to important metrics. “The equity ratio has been very thin for a long time,” says balance sheet expert Nikolaj Schmolcke. “A crisis hits straight away.”

Boeing shares did relatively well last year. At the start of the stock market week after the incident, however, the price fell by seven percent to just under 211 euros. For analysts, this was initially no reason to fundamentally change their assessment of the company: According to Morningstar analyst Nicolas Owens, the share price could rise to $232. He believes the inspections or manufacturing changes will not have a significant financial impact on Boeing or its customers.

Deutsche Bank also assumed this: “The stock will certainly open downwards, and the short-term bull market is more at risk,” says Scott Deuschle, analyst at Deutsche Bank in New York. However, this only applies until the Max 9 fleet is, firstly, fully in the air again, no faulty door plugs have been identified and, secondly, there is a better idea of ​​what the cause of the door plug failure on the affected flight was.

If the FAA requires Boeing to conduct a more extensive pre-delivery inspection of the Max-9, it could impact the pace of deliveries, said Cai von Rumohr, an analyst at TD Cowden. Deutsche Bank considered a longer delivery stop to be unlikely.

Experts do not believe that customers are now canceling a large number of aircraft from Boeing. The order backlog from airlines such as Lufthansa and Emirates is good. “Lufthansa always has someone on site at the manufacturer who supervises the construction and checks whether the work is carried out cleanly,” explains Großbongardt. “They’ll probably just take a closer look now. Nobody needs to be afraid of crashing their plane.” The US aviation authority FAA also announced that it would now monitor Boeing even more closely.

This article first appeared in the business magazine “Capital”, which, like stern, is part of RTL Deutschland.