In a chilling incident that unfolded three miles above Oregon, an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 MAX 9 faced a catastrophic failure shortly after takeoff on Friday (5 Jan) night.
The airplane’s window blew out, and a portion of its fuselage was damaged, creating a harrowing situation for the 174 passengers and six crew members on board.
The pilots skillfully executed an emergency landing, and despite the ordeal, there were no serious injuries reported. The incident has raised significant concerns about the safety of Boeing’s 737 MAX series.
The affected flight, Alaska Airlines Flight 1282, departed from Portland at 5:07 p.m. on Friday (5 Jan) for a two-hour journey to Ontario, California.
Approximately six minutes into the flight, at an altitude of 16,000 feet, the window and a section of the fuselage suddenly failed, prompting one of the pilots to declare an emergency. The calm voice of the pilot was recorded requesting clearance to descend to 10,000 feet, ensuring there was sufficient oxygen for everyone on board.
Passengers onboard captured the terrifying scene, sharing videos online that revealed a gaping hole in the aircraft where the window had been.
Despite the chaos, the crew successfully landed the plane at Portland International Airport within 20 minutes of take-off. Firefighters promptly attended to the injured, and passengers were asked to remain seated during the process.
Alaska Airlines took immediate action in response to the incident, grounding its entire fleet of 65 Boeing 737-9 aircraft for inspections. The airline expressed its commitment to ensuring passenger safety and stated that flights would resume only after thorough examinations were completed.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) went a step further, ordering the temporary grounding of 171 Boeing 737 MAX 9 aircraft across the United States for immediate safety checks.
FAA Administrator Mike Whitaker emphasized the prioritization of safety in their decision-making process, collaborating with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to investigate the Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 incident.
This incident marks another setback for Boeing’s 737 MAX series, which faced a global grounding for 20 months following fatal crashes in 2018 and 2019 in Ethiopia and Indonesia.
Although the FAA’s current decision does not impose a full indefinite safety ban, the move is significant, considering the aviation giant’s recent challenges, including the ongoing recovery from pandemic-related issues and previous safety crises.
Alaska Airlines had already begun grounding dozens of its Boeing 737 MAX jets for safety checks even before the FAA’s directive.
In a statement released on Saturday (6 Jan) morning, the airline reported that over a quarter of the inspections had been completed, with no issues identified at that point.
CEO Ben Minicucci assured the public that their fleet would only return to service after precautionary maintenance and safety inspections, expected to conclude in the coming days.
The National Transportation Safety Board announced the deployment of a team of experts in structures, operations, and systems to investigate the incident.
Boeing, in coordination with Alaska Airlines, is actively working to gather information about the incident. The cause of the apparent structural failure remains unknown, as there were no immediate indications reported.
Social media posts from passengers revealed oxygen masks deployed and a portion of the aircraft’s side wall missing. Some photos suggested that a section of the fuselage, often used for an optional rear mid-cabin exit door, had vanished, leaving a door-shaped gap.
This extra door, usually installed by low-cost airlines, is permanently deactivated on jets with fewer seats, including those of Alaska Airlines.
The situation becomes more complex as reports emerge that the affected aircraft had presented “spurious indications of pressurization issues” a day before the incident, as reported by trade publication The Air Current.
Such information raises questions about the thoroughness of pre-flight inspections and the potential need for stricter safety protocols.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg expressed gratitude to the flight crew for keeping passengers safe during the terrifying incident.
Air safety experts, including Anthony Brickhouse from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, emphasized the importance of passengers keeping their seatbelts buckled during flights, even if the fasten seatbelt light is off.
Boeing, already grappling with production and quality problems, urged airlines last week to inspect all 737 MAX aeroplanes for a possible loose bolt in the rudder control system. The FAA assured close monitoring of these inspections and suggested additional action if more hardware issues are found.
The fuselage for Boeing 737 planes, including the 737 MAX series, is manufactured by Spirit AeroSystems, a Kansas-based company that separated from Boeing in 2005.
It remains unclear whether the door “plug” related to the Alaska incident is produced by Spirit, and whether the incident is linked to factory processes or design flaws. Spirit AeroSystems has deferred questions regarding the Alaska incident to Boeing.
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