Boeing jetliner that suffered inflight blowout was restricted because of concern over warning light

Official says Alaska Airlines decided to restrict the aircraft from long flights over water so the plane could return very quickly to an airport

By AP

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Investigator-in-Charge John Lovell examines the fuselage plug area of Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 on Sunday. — AP
Investigator-in-Charge John Lovell examines the fuselage plug area of Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 on Sunday. — AP

Published: Mon 8 Jan 2024, 8:03 PM

The Boeing jetliner that suffered an inflight blowout over Oregon was not being used for flights to Hawaii after a warning light that could have indicated a pressurisation problem lit up on three different flights.

Alaska Airlines decided to restrict the aircraft from long flights over water so the plane “could return very quickly to an airport” if the warning light reappeared, Jennifer Homendy, chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, said on Sunday.

Shares of The Boeing Co. tumbled 9 per cent at the opening bell on Monday, the first day of trading since the incident occurred. Shares of Alaska Airlines slid 4 per cent and Spirit AeroSystems, which builds the fuselage for Boeing’s 737 Max, plunged 14 per cent.

Homendy cautioned that the pressurisation light might be unrelated to Friday’s incident in which a plug covering an unused exit door blew off the Boeing 737 Max 9 as it cruised about 4.8 kilometres over Oregon.

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The warning light came on during three previous flights: On December 7, January 3 and January 4 — the day before the door plug broke off. Homendy said she didn’t have all the details regarding the December 7 incident but specified the light came on during a flight on January 3 and on January 4 after the plane had landed.

The NTSB said the lost door plug was found Sunday near Portland, Oregon, by a school teacher — for now, known only as Bob — who discovered it in his backyard and sent two photos to the safety board. Investigators will examine the plug, which is 66 by 121 centimetres and weighs 28.5kg, for signs of how it broke free.

Investigators will not have the benefit of hearing what was going on in the cockpit during the flight. The cockpit voice recorder — one of two so-called black boxes — recorded over the flight's sounds after two hours, Homendy said.

Alaska Airlines flight 1276, a Boeing 737-900, taxis before takeoff from Portland International Airport in Portland. — AP
Alaska Airlines flight 1276, a Boeing 737-900, taxis before takeoff from Portland International Airport in Portland. — AP

At a news conference on Sunday night, Homendy provided new details about the chaotic scene that unfolded on the plane. The explosive rush of air damaged several rows of seats and pulled insulation from the walls. The cockpit door flew open and banged into a lavatory door.

The force ripped the headset off the co-pilot and the captain lost part of her headset. A quick reference checklist kept within easy reach of the pilots flew out of the open cockpit, Homendy said.

The plane made it back to Portland, however, and none of the 171 passengers and six crew members was seriously injured.

Hours after the incident, the FAA ordered the grounding of 171 of the 218 Max 9s in operation, including all those used by Alaska Airlines and United Airlines, until they can be inspected. The airlines were still waiting Sunday for details about how to do the inspections, but the cancellations of flights involving Max 9 aircraft at both airlines have begun.

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Early on Monday, Alaska Airlines was forced to cancel 20 per cent of all flights, 141 in all. United cancelled 221 flights, or 8 per cent of its total flights scheduled for Monday.

Alaska Airlines, which has 65 Max 9s, and United, with 79, are the only US airlines to fly that particular model of Boeing’s workhorse 737. United said it was waiting for Boeing to issue a “multi-operator message,” which is a service bulletin used when multiple airlines need to perform similar work on a particular type of plane.

This photo released by the National Transportation Safety Board shows a gaping hole where the panelled-over door had been at the fuselage plug area of Alaska Airlines Flight 1282. — AP
This photo released by the National Transportation Safety Board shows a gaping hole where the panelled-over door had been at the fuselage plug area of Alaska Airlines Flight 1282. — AP

Boeing was working on the bulletin but had not yet submitted it to the FAA for review and approval, according to a person familiar with the situation. Producing a detailed, technical bulletin frequently takes a couple days, said the person, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe a matter that the company and regulators have not publicly discussed.

Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun called for a companywide webcast on Tuesday to talk about the incident with employees and senior leadership.

“When serious accidents like this occur, it is critical for us to work transparently with our customers and regulators to understand and address the causes of the event, and to ensure they don’t happen again,” Calhoun wrote in a message to employees Sunday. “This is and must be the focus of our team right now.”

Democratic US Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, chair of the Senate’s Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said she agreed with the decision to ground the Max 9s.

“Aviation production has to meet a gold standard, including quality control inspections and strong FAA oversight,” she said in a statement.

Before the discovery of the missing plug, the NTSB had pleaded with residents in an area west of Portland called Cedar Hills to be on the lookout for the object.

This photo released by the National Transportation Safety Board shows a gaping hole where the panelled-over door had been at the fuselage plug area of Alaska Airlines Flight 1282. — AP
This photo released by the National Transportation Safety Board shows a gaping hole where the panelled-over door had been at the fuselage plug area of Alaska Airlines Flight 1282. — AP

On Sunday, people scoured dense thickets wedged between busy roads and a light rail train station. Adam Pirkle said he rode 22km through the overgrowth on his bicycle.

“I’ve been looking at the flight track, I was looking at the winds,” he said. “I’ve been trying to focus on wooded areas.”

Before the school teacher named Bob found the missing door plug, searchers located two cell phones that appeared to have belonged to passengers on Friday’s terrifying flight. One was discovered in a yard, the other on the side of a road. Both were turned over to the NTSB, which vowed to return them to their owners.

Videos posted online by passengers showed a gaping hole where the panelled-over door had been. They applauded when the plane landed safely about 13 minutes after the blowout. Firefighters came down the aisle, asking passengers to remain in their seats as they treated the injured.

It was extremely lucky that the plane had not yet reached cruising altitude, when passengers and flight attendants might be walking around the cabin, Homendy said.

The aircraft involved rolled off the assembly line and received its certification two months ago, according to online FAA records. It had been on 145 flights since entering commercial service Nov. 11, said FlightRadar24, another tracking service. The flight from Portland was the aircraft’s third of the day.

The Max is the newest version of Boeing’s venerable 737, a twin-engine, single-aisle plane frequently used on U.S. domestic flights. The plane went into service in May 2017.

Two Max 8 jets crashed in 2018 and 2019, killing 346 people. All Max 8 and Max 9 planes were grounded worldwide for nearly two years until Boeing made changes to an automated flight control system implicated in the crashes.

The Max has been plagued by other issues, including manufacturing flaws, concern about overheating that led FAA to tell pilots to limit use of an anti-ice system, and a possible loose bolt in the rudder system.


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