Federal officials ground some Boeing 737 Max 9 jetliners after Ontario-bound plane suffers blowout – Daily News

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Federal officials on Saturday ordered the immediate grounding of some Boeing 737 Max 9 jetliners until they are inspected after an Alaska Airlines plane suffered a “plug door” blowout that left a gaping hole in the side of the fuselage.

The required inspections take around four to eight hours per aircraft and affect about 171 airplanes worldwide.

Passenger Jonathan Torres of Redlands took this selfie while wearing the oxygen mask that dropped after a window blew out of the Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 Max 9 jet he was flying Friday, Jan. 5, 2024, from Portland to Ontario. (Photo courtesy of Jonathan Torres)
Passenger Jonathan Torres of Redlands took this selfie while wearing the oxygen mask that dropped after a window blew out of the Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 Max 9 jet he was flying Friday, Jan. 5, 2024, from Portland to Ontario. (Photo courtesy of Jonathan Torres)

Alaska Airlines in a statement said that of the 65 737 Max 9 aircraft in its fleet, crews had inspected the paneled-over exits as part of recent maintenance work on 18 planes, and those were cleared to return to service Saturday. The inspection process for the remaining aircraft in the fleet was expected to be completed in the coming days, the company said.

An Alaska Airlines jetliner bound for Ontario International Airport blew out a portion of its fuselage shortly after takeoff 3 miles above Oregon late Friday, creating a gaping hole that forced the pilots to make an emergency landing as its 171 passengers and six crew members donned oxygen masks. The airline called the affected portion of the fuselage a “plug door.”

The plug is installed where an emergency exit door would be installed if an emergency exit was specified by the aircraft buyer. In this case, there is no emergency exit at the location.

From the exterior the affected part would look like a door. But from the interior it looks like a panel with a window.

Authorities are still looking for the plug door from the paneled-over exit and have a good idea of where it landed, National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy said at a news conference late Saturday. The NTSB is investigating.

“If you find that, please, please contact local law enforcement,” she said.

It was extremely lucky that the airplane had not yet reached cruising altitude, when passengers and the flight crew take off their seatbelts and walk about the cabin, Homendy said.

“No one was seated in 26A and B where that door plug is, the aircraft was around 16,000 feet and only 10 minutes out from the airport when the door blew,” she said. “Fortunately, they were not a cruise altitude of 30,000 or 35,000 feet.”

The headrests were gone on seats 26A and 25A and 26A was missing part of its seatback. There were also clothing items strewn about the area, Homendy said.

No one was seriously hurt as the depressurized plane returned safely to Portland International Airport about 20 minutes after it had departed, but the airline grounded its 65 Boeing 737 Max 9 aircraft until they can be inspected.

Passenger Evan Smith said a boy and his mother were sitting in the row where the panel blew out and the child’s shirt was sucked off him and out of the plane.

“You heard a big loud bang to the left rear. A whooshing sound and all the oxygen masks deployed instantly and everyone got those on,” Smith told KATU-TV.

Alaska Airlines CEO Ben Minicucci said the inspection of the company 737-9 fleet aircraft could take days to complete. They make up a fifth of the company’s 314 planes.

“We are working with Boeing and regulators to understand what occurred … and will share updates as more information is available,” Minicucci said. “My heart goes out to those who were on this flight – I am so sorry for what you experienced.”

Alaska canceled more than 100 flights, or 15% of its Saturday schedule by midday, according to FlightAware. United said the plane inspections would result in about 60 cancellations.

The Port of Portland, which operates the airport, told KPTV the fire department treated minor injuries at the scene. One person was taken for more treatment but wasn’t seriously hurt.

Flight 1282 had taken off from Portland at 5:07 p.m. Friday for a two-hour flight to Ontario. About six minutes later, the window and a chunk of the fuselage blew out as the plane was at about 16,000 feet. One of the pilots declared an emergency and asked for clearance to descend to 10,000 feet, the altitude where the air would have enough oxygen to breathe safely.

‘We need to turn back to Portland,” the pilot told controllers in a calm voice that she maintained throughout the landing process.

Videos posted by passengers online showed a gaping hole where the window had been and passengers wearing their masks. They applauded when the plane landed safely about 13 minutes after the window blew out. Firefighters then came down the aisle, asking passengers to remain in their seats as they treated the injured.

Passenger Emma Vu was asleep and woke up to a sensation of falling and seeing emergency masks drop down, she told CNN in a phone call. She apparently woke up after the panel section popped off; it wasn’t clear how close to the missing panel she was.

Vu said she texted her parents their code word for emergencies to let them know about the incident. “I’ve never had to use it before, but I knew that this was that moment,” Vu said.

People sitting on either side of her comforted her, she said. “The flight attendant came over too, and told me it was going to be OK,” Vu said. “The fact that everyone was kind of freaking out and she took that time to kind of make me feel like I was the only passenger – honestly that was really sweet.”

Vu plans to take a different flight to her intended destination on Saturday morning, she said.

Elizabeth Le, of Portland, told freelance news service OC Hawk that about 20 minutes into the flight she heard a big bang and saw oxygen masks hanging from the ceiling.

“I look to my left and there’s a big chunk of the airplane just missing and it was just really loud,” Le said. “Everything was normal until I heard the boom. I’m not sure what happened, but parts of the wall were flying everywhere.”

Multiple passengers told OC Hawk that no one was screaming. They credited the flight attendants with helping to keep passengers calm.

Jessica Montoya told OC Hawk the pilot had just announced that they reached 10,000 feet when she heard a loud pop. She was about four rows away from the damage.

She said the force of the wind sucked the shirt of a man sitting next to the door off of him and his phone out of his hand.

“I’ve seen it in the movies, but this time it’s real,” she said. “By the grace of God we’re here.”

Following the incident, Vivian Najera, whose cousin Jonathan Torres of Redlands was a passenger on the flight, said her cousin and another family member received an email from Alaska Airlines stating that they received a refund for the flight, a free flight down to Southern California and an additional $1,500.

The aircraft involved rolled off the assembly line and received its certification 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.

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