In October, Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun was asked how fast Boeing could raise output of its best-selling 737 Max after a spate of quality snags. He was upbeat: Boeing would get back to 38 jets a month and was "anxious to build from there as fast as we can."

As he sought to reassure investors about the recovery of Boeing's cash cow after another quarterly loss, one of the narrow-bodied jets was waiting at Boeing Field in Seattle for final tests and delivery to Alaska Airlines just six days later.

Four critical bolts were missing.