Harrowing Alaska Airlines Incident Resurfaces Boeing 737 Max Concerns as Dozens of Planes Are Grounded

After the plug door blew out on Alaska Airlines flight 1282, Boeing 737-9 Max planes have been grounded globally. Here’s how the incident is affecting future flights—and flight safety.

An Alaska Airlines Boeing 737-9 Max plane

On the Boeing 737-9 Max, an exit-door plug toward the back of the plane is a panel that covers a space that can be used for an additional exit door depending on the layout of the plane.

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Over the weekend, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) grounded flights on all Boeing 737-9 Max planes following a harrowing incident on Alaska Airlines flight 1282 in which a plug door near the rear of the plane blew out at 16,000 feet, six minutes into a flight from Portland, Oregon, to Ontario, California, causing the cabin to lose pressure. Oxygen masks were deployed, and passengers described a rough ride as the plane quickly returned to the Portland airport; no one was seriously hurt, but several of the 177 people aboard were treated for minor injuries. The incident prompted a sweeping grounding of most of the 215 Boeing 737-9 Max planes that were flying worldwide.

Alaska and United Airlines, which between them operate 144 Max 9 aircraft, quickly took the jets out of service, canceling hundreds of flights in a move that affects tens of thousands of passengers, with disruptions expected to continue this week and perhaps beyond while safety inspections are conducted.

The immediate impact on air travel

The 737-9 Max grounding “has significantly impacted our operation,” Alaska Airlines said in a statement Sunday night. More than 230 flights were scrubbed on Sunday and Monday, with the biggest impact felt at Alaska’s Seattle hub. “Cancellations will continue through the first half of the week,” the airline stated, advising travelers with upcoming flights to check their email and alaskaair.com for updates.

United, the largest operator of the Max 9, with 79 planes, canceled roughly 375 flights over the weekend, about 9 percent of its schedule, according to FlightAware.com. Turkish Airlines has grounded five Max 9 aircraft, and Aeromexico has grounded 19 Max 9 planes. Other operators include Icelandair and Panama’s Copa Airlines, according to Cirium, an aviation data firm.

As for the cause of the incident, the initial focus is on a side section of the fuselage known as an exit-door plug, a panel covering a space that could be used for an additional exit door depending on the layout of the plane. The number of exits is determined by the number of passenger seats, and for lower-density configurations, fewer exits may be needed, and that space can be “plugged” with a panel, such as the one on the jet operating Alaska flight 1282. (Early Monday, it was reported that the errant panel was recovered from a resident’s backyard in Portland.)

What this means for Boeing 737-9 Max planes and aircraft safety

The FAA is requiring operators to ground their Boeing 737-9 Max aircraft for inspections that will take approximately four to eight hours per plane. But as the investigation into the causes of the blowout kick into high gear, it’s unclear how long it will be before the planes can return to service.

United Airlines on Monday reported that it had found loose bolts on Boeing 737-9 Max airplanes during fleet inspections, furthering concerns.

The Alaska plane is not the same version of the 737 as the Max 8, which had two fatal crashes that prompted a nearly two-year worldwide grounding of the Max series in 2019. But given that it is part of the same aircraft family, the incident is raising some questions among travelers about its overall safety record.

“It doesn’t appear there’s any connection” between last weekend’s blowout and the design flaws that led to the 2019 Max groundings, says John Goglia, a former member of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and an aviation safety consultant.

But that the plane landed safely with no serious harm to those aboard shouldn’t be cause for complacency, says Goglia, noting that “the outcome could have been a lot worse” if the plane had been at cruising altitude (about 34,000 feet). A critical factor in the safety of all passengers on Alaska Airlines flight 1282 was that they were in their seats and belted as the plane was still climbing minutes after takeoff. And, he adds, it serves as yet another reminder, following the Japan Airlines flight that erupted into flames earlier in the week, that airplanes “can take a hit and still make a safe landing.”

The head of NTSB, Jennifer Homendy, said at a news conference over the weekend that the agency is going to pore over maintenance and safety records to determine the cause of the accident, which could take some time. But she also reassured the traveling public that air travel is safe.

“We have the safest aviation system in the world. It’s incredibly safe,” she said, adding that the United States “sets the standard for air safety” globally. In the end, though, she said, “We have to maintain that standard.”

Barbara Peterson is AFAR’s special correspondent for air, covering breaking airline news and major trends in air travel. She is author of Blue Streak: Inside JetBlue, the Upstart That Rocked an Industry and is a winner of the Lowell Thomas Award for Investigative Reporting.
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