‘I said goodbye’: Passengers recall ‘terror’ as Alaska Airlines added to lawsuit

Jan 18, 2024, 8:32 PM

door plug blowout alaska boeing...

A plastic sheet covers an area of the fuselage of the Alaska Airlines N704AL Boeing 737 MAX 9 aircraft outside a hangar at Portland International Airport on January 8, 2024 in Portland, Oregon. (Photo: Mathieu Lewis-Rolland/Getty Images)

(Photo: Mathieu Lewis-Rolland/Getty Images)

Alaska Airlines is in the crosshairs of multiple lawsuits as more customers are holding the airline and Boeing responsible for the “terror” passengers experienced after a door plug blew off during their flight earlier this month. 

On Thursday, Seattle-based law firm Stritmatter Kessler Koehler Moore (The Stritmatter Firm) announced they were adding Alaska Airlines to its existing class-action lawsuit against Boeing filed last week. 

“We held our fire on Alaska Airlines because, at this point, there appears to be no direct evidence that it actually handled the door panel that flew off of Flight 1282,” said The Stritmatter Firm attorney Daniel Laurence.

More on the plane door blowout: Retired Navy admiral to lead probe of Boeing after blowout fiasco

But, he added, as new information has come to light since the incident, “it became quite apparent that Alaska Airlines, which has purchased roughly a third of the 737 Max 9 aircraft, was surely in a position to know some of the situation with Boeing that has been occurring over the last few years.”

The Boeing 737 Max 9 experienced a critical failure shortly after takeoff from Portland International Airport in Portland, Oregon, on Jan. 5. 

Passengers recall the night of the plane blowout

Suzannah Anderson was sitting in the front row when she heard what she thought was an explosion.

“My ears started ringing really loud,” she told KIRO Newsradio, reflecting on the screaming and crying coming from the back of the plane as flight attendants struggled to close the cockpit door. “I work in healthcare and I’ve worked in emergency rooms and crisis units out in the field many times. You know the look when you’re not going to make it, or a person is not going to make it. And I quickly realized I needed to pivot and start messaging people to say goodbye.”

According to the class-action lawsuit, “the force of depressurization ripped the shirt off a boy, and sucked cell phones, other debris and much of the oxygen out of the aircraft.” (A PDF of the complaint can be viewed here.)

Garrett Cunningham was sitting close enough to see the gaping hole.

“My brain couldn’t compute what I was looking at. It just did not make any sense,” he said. “The fact that part of the plane was gone. I put (the oxygen mask) to my face, but didn’t really feel the oxygen coming in.”

The complaint alleged there were problems with oxygen masks throughout the aircraft.

“For at least some passengers, despite tugging on the tubes, no oxygen flowed,” court documents read. 

 “There were no instructions,” Anderson added. “I couldn’t hear anything.”

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said their initial findings indicated the wind noise caused by the hole in the fuselage “seriously impaired” communication among the flight crew and with air traffic control at Portland International Airport, where the plane had departed from 10 minutes earlier. 

Anderson began preparing for the worst.

“The chaos and debris in the air and the screaming people, I decided this was when I would need to come to terms with this being the end,” Suzannah said.

Anderson couldn’t reach her husband or other loved ones, but managed to send a text to her son, letting him know that he is, and has been, the best part of her life. 

“That was one of my biggest thoughts. The grief that I wasn’t able to say goodbye,” she said.

The pilots were able to turn the plane around and land safely in Portland. None of the 171 passengers and six crewmembers aboard Flight 1282 were seriously hurt. Jennifer Homendy, chair of the NTSB, said it was extremely lucky that the airplane had not yet reached cruising altitude when passengers and flight attendants are allowed to walk around the cabin. 

But once on the ground, some passengers said they were surprised and angered by Alaska Airlines’ response. 

“There was nobody there to greet us or say anything to us, there was no direction,” Anderson said when she and others got off the plane. “I walked over to a desk, and I asked where to go and what to do. And they looked at me a bit confused, and then pointed towards a customer service location.”

Alaska Airlines doesn’t comment, does keep planes grounded

When asked about the lawsuit, Alaska Airlines said it cannot comment on pending litigation. The airline almost immediately grounded the 65 737 Max 9 planes in their fleet. Alaska stated the decision impacts “between 110 to 150 flights” every day.  

More on Boeing planes grounded: FAA grounds about 170 Boeing 737-9 Max aircraft after Portland flight blowout

“I sincerely apologize to everyone on board the flight for what you experienced,” Alaska Airlines CEO Ben Minicucci said in a video.

He told customers Alaska will be putting its own mechanics and quality inspectors in the factory with Boeing. Minicucci said the affected planes will return to service “only when all findings have been fully resolved and meet the stringent standards of Boeing, the FAA and Alaska Airlines.”

According to an update from the airline on Thursday, the Max 9 groundings will be extended at least through Sunday. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has grounded approximately 171 Boeing 737 Max 9 planes worldwide in the wake of the incident.  

Multiple lawsuits claim Boeing delivered a plane with a faulty door plug and that Alaska management had deemed the aircraft unsafe to fly over the ocean, but continued to fly it over land.

Inspectors with both Alaska and United Airlines discovered “loose hardware” on door plugs following the incident, adding to what NTSB findings are calling “quality control issues” with the plug that attached to the plane to fill an unused door hole. 

Attorneys: Passengers ‘extremely concerned’

“Passengers and most people talking about this case that I’ve talked to are extremely concerned about the fact that Alaska even allowed this aircraft to fly in the first place,” said Laurence, whose team at The Stritmatter Firm is representing 17 passengers so far. Former Pierce County Prosecuting attorney Mark Linquist is representing another 4 passengers in a separate suit, with more litigation expected in the coming months. 

NTSB confirmed warning lights were triggered on three flights, including each of the two days before the brand-new Boeing 737 Max 9 suffered the blowout. 

Homendy said maintenance crews checked the plane and cleared it to fly — but the airline decided not to use it to fly over the ocean so that it “could return very quickly to an airport” if the warning light reappeared. The plane had been in operation since Oct. 31, federal records showed. 

She cautioned that the pressurization warning light might be unrelated to the Jan. 5 incident. But Laurence said that’s a small comfort to his clients.

“It does make you wonder whether that particular light was going off because of potential air escaping, or other pressurization compromises that might have been related to the door panel that flew off,” he said. 

The FAA declined to comment on whether the Alaska Airlines plane in question should have been allowed to keep flying. The agency said “it would be premature” to comment while the NTSB is investigating. 

Boeing, which has had its own share of problems with various planes over the years, pledged to “help address any and all findings” that airlines make during their inspections. During a meeting with employees at the 737 production facility in Renton last week, Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun said the company is “going to approach” the incident by starting with an acknowledgment of “our mistake.”

The company would not comment on the lawsuits. 

More from Kate Stone: No more ‘spring forward’ if new bill passes Wash. State Legislature

Attorney Furhad Sultani with the Strittmatter Firm said he believes airline management is acknowledging they could have responded better, but that their offerings to customers have been insufficient. 

“They’ve offered a paltry sum of $1,500 and counseling sessions to passengers,” Sultani said. “And that’s simply inadequate, given that it is a common carrier.”

The suit is seeking undisclosed damages. But Cunningham said for him, it’s not about money.

“My whole thing is Alaska, Boeing, whoever needs to understand how important this was,” he said. “It’s only by the grace of God that I’m still here because 10 minutes later, a few thousand feet higher, I wouldn’t be here. So, for that fact and knowing that they were aware that there was something going on, this awareness needs to be out there.”

You can read more of Kate Stone’s stories here. Follow Kate on X, formerly known as Twitter, or email her here.

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‘I said goodbye’: Passengers recall ‘terror’ as Alaska Airlines added to lawsuit