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Door Blows Out on Alaska Boeing 737 MAX 9 Mid-Flight

Portland, OR - On January 5, 2024, Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 experienced an uncontrolled decompression while climbing out of Portland International Airport (PDX). The flight crew returned the aircraft to Portland, where it landed safely without further incident. Despite the shirt being ripped off of a teenage boy, thankfully, only three people sustained minor injuries. Flight 1282 was operating as a regularly scheduled flight between Portland and Ontario International Airport (ONT), a popular alternative to Los Angeles and serving the well-populated community of Ontario, CA.

Days later, the door, a plug-type style, was recovered in the backyard of a home in Cedar Hills, OR. Two passengers' mobile phones were also discovered by nearby residents, and other smaller items were blown out of the aircraft during the decompression.

An extensive investigation is underway to determine the root cause of the mechanical failure. Certainly, Boeing will be put under the microscope throughout the process. The aircraft manufacturer has lost the trust of stakeholders and, ultimately, most of the public following two high-profile crashes of Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft in recent years. Investigations determined the primary cause to be an egregious design flaw on Boeing's part, and the ensuing unethical behavior only compounded their problems.

Alaska Airlines is not out of the water, either. Some may recall the fatal crash of Flight 261 in January 2001, in which a McDonnell Douglas MD-83 plunged from the sky following the failure of a critical component in the aircraft's stabilizer. For those of you at home, the movie Flight, starring Denzel Washington, is based on this crash, which was ultimately unsurvivable. The movie tells the story of a miracle, whereas the harsh reality is that the final moments for those on board rivaled the most horrific in aviation history.

In response to Flight 1282, the FAA released an Emergency Airworthiness Directive (EAD) for Boeing 737 MAX 9 operators with mid-cabin plug-type doors, as Alaska has installed. While no operators of this configuration exist domestically, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) adopted the FAA's directive for aircraft operating into or out of Europe. Several airlines were forced to ground aircraft and cancel thousands of flights, including both Boeing 737 MAX 9 operators in the United States - Alaska and United Airlines.

A class action lawsuit is underway from the families of those on board, claiming that the incident caused "intense fear, distress, anxiety, trauma, physical pain and other injuries to plaintiffs and fellow passengers." Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun has acknowledged they are ultimately responsible for the safety of its aircraft and maintains that the manufacturer will be fully transparent throughout the investigation.

Uncontrolled Decompression

While extremely rare, history tells us that those on board the aircraft were extremely lucky, mainly that the failure did not occur at a higher altitude. While more "common" in the earlier days of airline travel, aircraft engineering has evolved to make experiencing a critical loss of pressurization one of the most unlikely outcomes during flight. Some notable accidents or incidents:

  • August 12, 1985 | Japan Air Lines Flight 123 - A Boeing 747SR46 experienced an explosive decompression mid-flight, causing parts of the aircraft to break up, including the vertical stabilizer. Only four of the 524 occupants survived, and the cause was traced back to faulty repairs following a tail strike seven years prior.

  • April 28, 1988 | Aloha Airlines Flight 243 - Arguably, it was the most well-known decompression, thanks to the photos following the incident. Metal fatigue caused a hole in the cabin of a Boeing 737-200 aircraft to form, ejecting a flight attendant but leaving the rest of the passengers unharmed. The plane landed safely in Honolulu.

  • February 24, 1989 | United Airlines Flight 811 - The cargo door of a Boeing 747-200 on its way to Auckland, NZ, from Honolulu, blew out, ejecting nine passengers from the aircraft. The flight could also return to Honolulu and land without further incident. The failure of the cargo door was concluded to be primarily attributed to a design flaw.

An uncontrolled decompression is defined as the drop in the pressure of a sealed system. These occurrences are particularly notable, as the cause is often attributed to human error, namely design flaws. Events are further categorized as "Explosive," "Rapid," or "Slow" based on the severity of the physiological effects as a result of the decompression. Explosive decompression could result in passengers being ejected from the aircraft, while slow decompression could go undetected by occupants until hypoxia sets in.

Moving Forward

It is still too early to tell who is at fault for the specific failure in Flight 1282. However, as more comes out about loose bolts being found during inspections following the safety directive, the spotlight turns toward Boeing and quality assurance concerns. Each aircraft is inspected prior to delivery, leaving many to wonder if it is true how these aircraft were allowed into the skies in the first place.

Boeing is honing in on part subcontractor Spirit AeroSystems, a manufacturing firm in charge of supplying the bolts for the mid-cabin doors. Aircraft manufacturers commonly contract out parts, but Boeing's ultimate responsibility remains. This is why quality assurance practices are in question and will undoubtedly be heavily scrutinized by the inspecting agencies.

There were also warning signs on the part of Alaska leading up to the day of the incident. On previous flights, a non-critical warning message illuminated, alerting flight crews to an issue with pressure control. Alaska decided to restrict the aircraft to non-ETOPs routes, restricting the plane from flying long distances over the ocean. The airframe, registered N704AL, was delivered to Alaska only in October 2023.

This further complicates ongoing certification processes for the family's MAX 7 and MAX 10 variants, the shortest and longest, respectively. Carriers worldwide have waited patiently for their shiny new toys and have already voiced their displeasure over the lengthy delays, which are surely set to extend. The Boeing 737 MAX entered revenue service in 2017 when Malindo Air accepted delivery of its first Boeing 737 MAX 8. We are now in 2024, but Boeing expects certification to be approved this year. It is unclear whether that remains to be the projection.

With all these variables at play, the pressure is on the FAA and NTSB to conclude their investigation in a timely manner, so we will likely find out more in the not-too-distant future. Passengers can expect to be impacted until corrective actions are calculated and implemented, as the Boeing 737 MAX 9 represents critical network infrastructure for affected operators.

I boldly claimed that, following the events over the last several years, the Boeing 737 MAX would be the safest airplane in the skies following the MCAS situation. While this certainly doesn't help my argument for the time being, an outcome was increased scrutiny placed on aviation safety design, practices, and potential conflicts of interest. I, as well as numerous others, will be closely monitoring the ongoing investigation.

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