An Alaska Airlines plane has suffered the blow-out of part of a cabin exit door mid-flight, prompting the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to ground of all Boeing 737-9s with a so-called “plug” exit door for a safety inspection.
The terrifying incident occurred on a 737-9 MAX shortly after take-off at 17.06 local time from Portland (PDX) on 5 January 2024. The plane was carrying 171 passengers and six crew on their way to Ontario (ONT). The aircraft reached an altitude of 16,325 ft before it was forced to make a rapid descent and return to Portland, landing again at 17.26. No injuries were reported.
In a recording of the flight communication with air traffic controllers, a pilot can be heard requesting a descent to a lower altitude and being told to “maintain 7000” before confirming that the situation is “an emergency. We are depressurised.”
Reminder to keep your seatbelt on at all times when flying.— Zero State Reflex (@ZeroStateReflex) January 6, 2024
737 window piece blew out beginning of flight. Just saw the article. Jfc, imagine that happening at 30k..😬
I think this is that flight… nobody was hurt and landed safely. https://t.co/srDBorVNCV#alaskaairlines pic.twitter.com/1YtFUlX0g7
“No one really screamed”
Footage recorded by a flyer inside the plane during the flight reveals a gaping hole in the side of the cabin and a loud sound of rushing air. Oxygen masks can be seen dangling from the ceiling, however passengers nearby, including those very close to the hole in the aircraft, appear remarkably calm.
Though one flyer described the unexpectedly short journey as a “trip from hell”, she noted that “no one really screamed or anything.” Another passenger described a “pop” noise and a blast of air hitting him in the face and receding. Speaking to the BBC another passenger reported, “There was just wind blowing everywhere.”
A problem with the rear cabin door “plug”
The design of the 737-9 MAX features a rear cabin exit door situated between the wings and before the rear exit door. The additional door only comes into play if the aircraft is configured in its high-density seating layout, to meet evacuation requirements. On Alaska Airlines aircraft the door is supposed to be permanently “plugged.”
It is this plug that is being cited in the FAA’s airworthiness order as having the potential to “cause injury to passengers or crew, the plug impacting the airplane and/or cause loss of control of the airplane.”
The aircraft in question
The particular craft in question, registered N704AL, was on its third flight of the day. Flightradar notes the plane was brand new to Alaska from Boeing at the end of October. It commenced commercial flight services less than two months ago on 11 November 2023 and has accumulated 145 flights since then (including the blow out flight).