FAA grounds about 170 Boeing 737-9 Max aircraft after Portland flight blowout

Jan 7, 2024, 8:38 AM | Updated: 10:21 am

Image: A portion of the Boeing aircraft that housed Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 burst open while th...

A portion of the Boeing aircraft that housed Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 burst open while the plane was in the air Friday, Jan. 5, 2024. (Image courtesy of KIRO 7)

(Image courtesy of KIRO 7)

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced Saturday the temporary grounding of certain Boeing 737-9 Max aircraft operated by U.S. airlines or in U.S. territory. The move will affect more than 170 planes worldwide.

This development comes after an Alaska Airlines jetliner blew out a window and a portion of its fuselage shortly after takeoff three miles above Oregon Friday evening. The blowout created a gaping hole that sucked clothing off a child and forced the pilots to make an emergency landing as its 174 passengers and six crew members donned oxygen masks.

The federal agency made the announcement in a statement on its website and in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter.

In a statement distributed and posted on X Saturday, Boeing said it supported the FAA’s decision to require inspections of the aircraft in question.

“Safety is our top priority and we deeply regret the impact this event has had on our customers and their passengers. We agree with and fully support the FAA’s decision to require immediate inspections of 737-9 airplanes with the same configuration as the affected airplane,” the statement, in part, reads.

Before the FAA’s announcement, Alaska Airlines released a short statement on its website and X account Saturday saying, “As of this morning, inspections on more than a quarter of our 737-9 fleet are complete with no concerning findings. Aircraft will return to service as their inspections are completed with our full confidence.”

Previously, the airline said late Friday it grounded all 65 of its Boeing 737-9 Max aircraft, hours after the incident, which resulted in the emergency landing in Portland, Oregon. No one was seriously hurt.

“Following tonight’s event on Flight 1282, we have decided to take the precautionary step of temporarily grounding our fleet of 65 Boeing 737-9 aircraft.” Alaska Airlines CEO Ben Minicucci said in a statement posted on the company’s website and on their X account. “My heart goes out to those who were on this flight – I am so sorry for what you experienced.”

The incident occurred shortly after takeoff and the gaping hole caused the cabin to depressurize. The plane returned to Portland International Airport (PDX) less than 30 minutes after taking off.

Each of the aircraft will be returned to service after full maintenance and safety inspections, which Minicucci said the airline anticipated completing within days.

“We are working with Boeing and regulators to understand what occurred tonight, and will share updates as more information is available,” he said.

Aviation news: Alaska Airlines to buy Hawaiian Airlines in a $1.9 billion deal with debt

Boeing released a short statement about the incident Friday night on its website and on its X account acknowledging an incident occurred and offering support to the pending investigation.

“We are aware of the incident involving Alaska Airlines Flight 1282. We are working to gather more information and are in contact with our airline customer. A Boeing technical team stands ready to support the investigation,” the statement reads.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is expected to be involved in the investigation as well, according to a post on X from the FAA Friday night.

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

Witnesses recount what they saw, felt

Flight attendants made several announcements, but passengers were unable to hear over the sound of rushing wind, according to The Oregonian. The crew eventually circulated through the plane to check for injuries and ensure everyone was belted into their seats.

“It was deathly silent. Nobody made a noise,” another passenger, 29-year-old Kyle Rinker, said in a text message to The Oregonian. “You could feel the plane shake a little because of the air pressure difference.”

One passenger sent KATU News in Portland a photo showing the hole in the side of the airplane next to passenger seats. Video shared with the station showed people wearing oxygen masks and passengers clapping as the plane landed.

Passenger Elizabeth shot a stunning video of the flight in midair after the blowout occurred and posted it to her TikTok account. It has been viewed more than 12.2 million times as of 11 a.m. on Saturday. She told KATU News that she was glad everyone is OK.

Elizabeth also spoke to KGW in Portland and described what she saw.

“Everything was going fine until we heard a loud bang … a boom,” she recalled. “I look up, and the air masks are popped down, and I look down to my left, and there’s a huge, gaping hole on the left side, where the window is.”

Evan Smith, a passenger on the flight visiting Portland, was on the flight to get home to California. He told KGW there was a “big bang” and “smoky smell.”

“Everybody got their masks on. Cabin crew was very calm, going around, trying got take care of everybody and see what was going on. Pilot did a good job,” he said. “Shows you how structurally strong those planes are: You could blow a hole in it like that. The hole was about as wide as a refrigerator and about two-thirds as high when I finally got to see it later.”

The airline provided no immediate information about injuries. However, KPTV reported that according to the Port of Portland, the fire department responded and treated minor injuries at the scene. One person was taken for more treatment but wasn’t seriously hurt.

The seat next to the destroyed section of the plane was unoccupied but the force ripped the shirt off a teenager in the middle seat, leaving his skin reddened and legs bruised from the sudden decompression, according to passengers’ accounts noted by The Oregonian.

Details about the flight

The plane was diverted about about six minutes after taking off at 5:07 p.m., according to flight tracking data from the FlightAware website. It landed at 5:26 p.m. The pilot told Portland air traffic controllers the plane had an emergency, was depressurized and needed to return to the airport, according to a recording made by the website (Interested users can download and listen to that recording here.)

Data on FlightAware reports the flight reached an altitude of 16,000 feet and a speed of 444 mph before it descended and slowed down.

The flight was scheduled to travel to Ontario International Airport in Ontario, California. Ontario is in Southern California, about 40 miles east of Los Angeles.

How these developments will affect other passengers

According to FlightAware, 108 Alaska Airlines flights for Saturday were canceled, representing 14% of its schedule. Another 74 (9%) were delayed. The FAA’s announcement of the grounding of around 170 aircraft is expected to create additional cancellations and delays, but the extent of the issue is not yet fully known.

Locally, 30 flights (6% of its schedule) were canceled at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport Saturday, Flightaware reported. Another 33 were delayed.

Alaska Airlines confirmed its decision to ground the Boeing 737-9 planes will impact its customers and said as part of its statement about Flight 1282 that, “guests whose flights have been impacted by this grounding are being notified with guidance on next steps and are also encouraged to visit for self-service options.”

More on the Boeing 737 Max

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 737 Max is the latest version of Boeing’s signature narrowbody jetliner. Alaska had recently transitioned to an all-Boeing fleet and relies heavily on the Max, which has been in service since 2017 and has accumulated over 6.5 million flight hours globally, The Seattle Times noted in its reporting.

On Dec. 28, Alaska Airlines published an article on its website announcing that it had added the first 737-8 to its lineup and indicated they could order up to 40 of them from Boeing.

“Alaska Airlines continues to grow as we welcome delivery of the first Boeing 737-8 to our aircraft lineup – the next component of our strategic, long-term fleet plan that builds on our strengths and provides a road map for ongoing future success,” the article begins.

The article added the currently has “firm orders for 80 more 737 Max aircraft, and options and purchase rights for another 105.”

“The addition of the 737-8 and eventually the 737-10 to our fleet creates new opportunities for us to fly longer nonstop routes and maximize our revenue potential,” Nat Pieper, senior vice president of fleet, finance and alliances at Alaska Airlines, said, according to the airline’s article. “We have achieved terrific results with the 737-9 in guest satisfaction, economics and fuel efficiency, and we are excited for our future with the other 737 models.”

Two Max 8 jets crashed in 2018 (Lion Air Flight 610 in Indonesia) and 2019 (Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 in Ethiopia), killing 346 people and leading to a near two-year worldwide grounding of all Max 8 and Max 9 planes. The planes returned to service only after Boeing made changes to an automated flight control system implicated in the crashes.

Last year, the FAA told pilots to limit use of an anti-ice system on the Max in dry conditions because of concern that inlets around the engines could overheat and break away, possibly striking the plane.

Max deliveries have been interrupted at times to fix manufacturing flaws. The company told airlines in December to inspect the planes for a possible loose bolt in the rudder-control system.

The news broke after an unnamed international airline noticed a missing nut during a routine safety inspection. When they found another one, Boeing sent out the alert, KIRO 7 explained last month.

More on Boeing aircrafts: Company recommends airlines inspect 737 Max planes for critical loose or missing bolt

Second recent major incident at PDX

Joseph David Emerson, an off-duty commercial pilot riding in an extra cockpit seat on a Oct. 22 Horizon Air flight departing from Everett’s Paine Field said “I’m not OK” just before trying to cut the engines midflight and later told police he had recently taken psychedelic mushrooms as his mental health worsened, according to a federal complaint made public shortly after the night of the incident.

Emerson, a 44-year-old Alaska Airlines pilot from Pleasant Hill, California, was initially arrested in Oregon on the night of the incident on state counts of attempted murder after the flight crew reported that he attempted to shut down the engines on the flight from Everett to San Francisco while riding in the extra seat in the cockpit. The plane was diverted to PDX, where it landed safely with more than 80 people onboard.

‘I’m not OK’: Off-duty pilot claimed ‘nervous breakdown’ before trying to shutdown plane engines

Later, a grand jury in Oregon determined Emerson should face one count of endangering an aircraft in the first degree and 83 counts of recklessly endangering another person  — one count for each person who was on the plane. He previously pleaded not guilty to attempted murder charges filed by state prosecutors and to a federal charge of interfering with a flight crew.

Emerson was released from jail pending trial last month after an Oregon judge approved it with multiple conditions.

“It’s a hard situation for a lot of people — not just for Joe, but for the people who were on the airplane, the pilots, for the flight attendants,” Emerson’s wife Sarah Stretch said after Wednesday’s hearing in federal court, according to KGW 8 at the time.

Contributing: The Associated Press

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FAA grounds about 170 Boeing 737-9 Max aircraft after Portland flight blowout