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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

United Airlines’ Boeing plane that landed with missing panel prompts investigation

A Boeing 737-800 performs a fly-by at the Miami International Airport on Dec. 19, 2014, in Miami. The United Airlines aircraft reported to be missing a panel after a flight from California to Oregon on Friday was a 737-800, not a newer 737 Max.  (Joe Raedle)
By Ellen Francis and Amber Ferguson Washington Post

Investigators are looking into why a Boeing plane was missing an external panel after a San Francisco to Oregon flight, officials said. The company was already facing heightened scrutiny from travelers and regulators over incidents involving its aircraft.

United Airlines said Flight 433, which carried 139 passengers and six crew members, was found to be missing an external panel Friday after the Boeing 737-800 parked at the gate at Rogue Valley International-Medford Airport in Oregon. It was not immediately clear how or when the plane, which departed San Francisco International Airport that morning, had lost the panel.

The Federal Aviation Administration said that the plane landed safely and that the missing panel was discovered during “a post landing airline inspection.” The FAA said it would investigate.

There was no indication of damage during the flight, which landed at its scheduled destination, and no emergency was declared en route to the Medford airport, according to the airline. There were no reports of injuries.

“We’ll conduct a thorough examination of the plane and perform all the needed repairs before it returns to service,” United said in a statement, adding that it would also conduct an investigation “to better understand how this damage occurred.”

Airport Director Amber Judd said in an email that no debris was found on the airfield after the flight landed around noon and that a routine inspection revealed the missing panel. Operations at the airport paused for a runway safety check and resumed a few minutes later, Judd said.

Boeing referred questions about the flight to United Airlines.

Bad news has plagued Boeing after a blowout on a 737 Max in January, when a door-plug fell off during an Alaska Airlines flight, leaving a gaping hole that terrified passengers in midair and caused an emergency landing.

The FAA launched an investigation into Boeing’s manufacturing after the door-plug failure. An agency audit found the company needed to improve in a number of areas, and regulators gave it 90 days to draft a plan to fix any quality control issues.

The aerospace giant said in February that it had “a clear picture of what needs to be done” and is “totally committed to meeting this challenge.”

Recent scrutiny has centered on the 737 Max, a widely used single-aisle airliner. Two catastrophic crashes of 737 Max planes killed 346 people around five years ago.

The aircraft reported to be missing a panel in Friday’s incident was an older 737-800, not a 737 Max.

In recent days, Boeing alerted airlines to a potential issue with loose switches on the pilot seats of its 787 Dreamliner jets after one of the planes went into a sudden dive, injuring 50 people, the Washington Post reported. That flight from Australia continued to New Zealand. The 787, a larger aircraft, is used mainly on long-distance international routes.

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Ian Duncan and Lori Aratani contributed to this report.