Alaska Airlines grounds Boeing 737 Max 9 fleet after section blows out midair

An Alaska Airlines plane takes off from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) on December 4, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. 

Mario Tama | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Alaska Airlines will temporarily ground its fleet of 65 Boeing 737 Max 9 planes after a section of the plane blew out midflight on Friday, forcing the crew to make an emergency landing.

“Each aircraft will be returned to service only after completion of full maintenance and safety inspections,” CEO Ben Minicucci said. “We anticipate all inspections will be completed in the next few days.”

Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 was heading to Ontario, California from Portland, Oregon, when it returned shortly after departure with 171 passengers and six crew aboard, the airline said.

Images and video of the new Boeing 737 Max 9 shared on social media showed a gaping hole on the side of the plane and passengers using oxygen masks. It landed back in Portland at 5:26 p.m. local time, according to Flightradar24. It had reached an altitude of 16,325 feet before returning to Portland.

The National Transportation Safety Board said “no serious injuries” were reported. It is sending a team to Portland to investigate, arriving later on Saturday. The Federal Aviation Administration also said it plans to investigate.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a Saturday social media post that he had been briefed on the “terrifying incident” and that the FAA plans to “take all appropriate steps going forward.”

“While this type of occurrence is rare, our flight crew was trained and prepared to safely manage the situation,” Alaska said.

The plane was certified in November, according to flight-tracking site FlightAware.

‘Explosive decompression’

Boeing also said it was aware of the incident but declined to comment further.

“We are working to gather more information and are in contact with our airline customer,” it said in a statement. “A Boeing technical team stands ready to support the investigation.”

The incident was described as “an explosive decompression at the window exit,” said Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, the labor union that represents Alaska’s cabin crew and flight attendants at United, Spirit and other carriers.

“Our Union strongly believes this decision [to ground the Max 9 fleet] is a prudent and necessary step toward ensuring the safety of all crew and passengers,” she said in a statement. “We will closely monitor the safety inspection process to ensure that aircraft are not returned to service until they are deemed safe for all.”

‘Plugged’ exit door

The Boeing 737 Max 9 has a cabin exit door behind the wings for use in dense seating cabin configurations, like those used by budget airlines, according to Flightradar24.

“The doors are not activated on Alaska Airlines aircraft and are permanently ‘plugged,'” Flightradar24 said.

The airline didn’t immediately respond to a question about the door and Boeing declined to comment beyond its statement.

United Airlines is preparing to ground dozens of its Boeing 737 Max 9 aircraft for inspections, according to a person familiar with the matter.

There are 215 Boeing 737 Max 9 planes in service worldwide, according to aviation-data firm Cirium. It had more than 5,000 flights scheduled for this year before the Alaska announcement, Cirium said.

The Boeing 737 Max 9 is a larger version of Boeing’s best-selling jetliner, the 737 Max 8. Max planes were grounded worldwide in 2019 after two fatal crashes within five months. The U.S. lifted its flight ban of the jets in late 2020 after software and training updates.

Late last year, Boeing urged airlines to inspect aircraft for a “possible” loose bolt in the rudder control system, the latest in a series of manufacturing flaws on the planes that have prompted additional inspections.

CORRECTION: Alaska Airlines had about 5,000 flights on the 737 Max 9 scheduled for this year. A previous version mischaracterized the number of flights.

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