In the wake of the recent Boeing “door plug” blow out, in which a sealed up exit on an Alaska Airlines flight ripped open mid-air, forcing the plane to make a rapid descent and landing, a Yale lecturer and ex United Airlines pilot has questioned why “door plugs” even exist, shifting some of the responsibility for the near-disaster away from Boeing and towards cost-averse airlines.
“Door plugs” are essentially sealed up exits on planes where the seat configuration means that not all the potential doors are deemed necessary. Instead of a potential 220 passengers, the Alaska flight had been configured to seat just 178 flyers. Amy Fraher, Yale lecturer and pilot, says this is not uncommon in the US where people demand less seat density and more leg room. Where airlines offering fewer seats might suffer in terms of load and capacity, they gain in other respects, including one key area: the fewer the flyers, the more lenient the regulations on exit doors.
When there are fewer than 190 seats, Fraher points out, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules “allow fewer emergency exits to be in service.” What happens to the unused exits? They get plugged. This saves airlines money, because for each exit that is in service, there is an on-cost in terms of regular maintenance, safety checks and inspection.
“In other words,” Fraher wrote in a CNN Travel article, “every working exit comes with associated costs in salaries, health benefits, pension plans, training and related expenses. Sealing off an emergency exit cuts costs.”
Fraher makes the very valid point that these regulations are not necessarily “in the best interest of air safety. Wouldn’t it be better for the FAA to require that all exits are available for use in an emergency, regardless of aircraft seating capacity, even if it required some additional expense for airlines?” she says.
However, it is this very flexibility in terms of configuration that has helped to make the Boeing 737 MAX 9 one of the most prolifically sold planes in the world. By the time the FAA certified the 737 MAX safe for flight, over 3,600 new orders from 83 customers had been made. In 2023, Boeing had logged more than 7,000 total orders for the aircraft.
Ironically, tragically, the fatal crashes of Lion Air flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines flight ET302, which resulted in over 300 deaths and the first grounding of the MAX due to faulty anti-stall systems, simply made Boeing and its manufacturing partner Spirit, rush all the more to meet demand. In pressing to get the planes out and the money in the bank, they requested various safety inspection exemptions to speed up the process. After all, each $121 million MAX sale is expected to make around US$12 million in profit.