News Room

Boeing Again Under Scrutiny After Plane Part Tears Off Mid-Flight

By Brian Kabateck

Boeing is under intense scrutiny as the company scrambles to reassure airlines, regulators, and passengers of its commitment to safety after a cabin panel blew off a brand-new 737 Max 9 jet during an Alaska flight earlier this month. About 171 Max 9 jets have since been grounded.

Airlines have canceled hundreds of flights, and grounded close to 200 planes in preparation for inspection following the in-flight emergency that could have been catastrophic—and, according to many aviation experts, could have been prevented.

Last month’s Alaska Airlines door plug blowout prompted the National Transportation Safety Board to release a preliminary report, indicating that evidence suggests four bolts were missing from the apparatus during the incident.

On January 5, less than 10 minutes after Alaska Airlines flight 1282 took off from Portland International Airport bound for Los Angeles, a door plug tore off the side of the plane at 16,000 feet. The sudden depressurization sent cell phones, toys, and other personal belongings flying out of the aircraft and scattered them over the Oregon city. 

Passengers describe a “big bang,” a “boom,” a tremendously loud and forceful gush of wind, oxygen masks dropping and dangling in front of their faces…and the chilling realization that there was a gaping hole in the side of their flying plane.

There were no serious injuries, and thankfully, no one was seated right next to the hole where the door plug flew off, but a mother and her teenage son occupied the middle and aisle seats in that row. The mother had to grab onto her son to keep him from being sucked out of the plane, and the teen’s shirt was pulled off, a nearby passenger told NBC.

According to FAA records, the plane involved in the incident—a Boeing 737 Max 9—was brand new. It had received its certification two months earlier; it had flown 145 commercial flights since November 11.

What is a door plug on an airplane?

You’re not alone if you never heard the term “door plug” until this frightening accident. It’s part of the fuselage primarily unfamiliar to the general public and only visible outside the plane.

Simply put, a door plug is a panel used to seal a built-in hole in the side of a plane where the airline could install an optional emergency exit.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulates how many emergency exits are needed relative to the number of seats on a plane. If the carrier does not wish to outfit their aircraft with the maximum number of seats, a door plug is bolted to cover the unused opening permanently. Hinges at the bottom anchor it, and four bolts are intended to prevent the panel from shifting vertically. An independent company called Spirit AeroSystems installed the door plugs on the Max 9.

Alaska Airlines and United Airlines are the only U.S. carriers flying the Max 9 aircraft. Alaska flies 65 Max 9s (about 20% of their fleet); with 79 in service, United flies the most Max 9s (about 8% of their fleet).

After the Alaska Airlines accident, the detached door plug was recovered from the backyard of a local school teacher and found to have no bolts attached. It is unclear whether the bolts were missing at take-off or pulled off during the blowout.

According to National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy, what is known is that Alaska Airlines had received at least three recent warnings about pressurization problems on the ill-fated plane. Between December 7 and January 4, pilots reported that warning lights had appeared on the cockpit dashboard, with at least one occurring in flight.

As United and Alaska Airlines began their preliminary inspections, they found what appeared to be installation issues—including loose bolts in the Max 9’s door plugs on several other aircraft. And as NPR reported, the incident is “prompting new questions about the door plug system itself and whether it’s still safe to fly.”

The Federal Aviation Administration grounded Boeing 737 Max 9s until “satisfied that they are safe,” an FAA spokesperson said on Sunday following the incident.

Boeing’s Max jets began service in 2017 and are the newest in their well-known and trusted family of 737s. However, it’s important to remember that the entire fleet of Max 8 and 9 jets was grounded worldwide for almost two years after two Max 8 crashes (Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Air Flight 302) just four months apart, in 2018 and 2019, killed a total of 346 passengers. Investigators determined a sensor malfunction in the Max 8’s new flight control system was partially responsible for those tragedies.

CNN Business reported that the FAA is investigating Boeing’s quality control based on the door plug disaster. The FAA said, “This incident should have never happened and cannot happen again.” Their Boeing 737 Max 9 probe will center on the “production line and its suppliers” and review “safety risks around delegated authority and quality oversight.” In a statement, FAA Administrator Mike Whitaker acknowledged that it is “time to re-examine” the process. In a letter to Boeing, the FAA said the circumstances of the incident “indicate that Boeing may have failed to ensure its completed products conformed to its approved design and were in a condition for safe operation.”

The National Transportation Safety Board has also announced its investigation, independent of the FAA.

In an interview with CNBC, Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun called the failure of the door plug “a horrible escape” of Boeing’s quality management system.

The current investigations turn up the heat on a class action lawsuit filed in federal court in December. According to court filings, a quality control inspector at Spirit AeroSystems— a long-standing subcontractor and a key supplier for Boeing—reported an ‘excessive amount of defects’ at the plant in Wichita, Kansas. The quality control inspector and an internal auditor have alleged that their attempts to perform their duties correctly were thwarted in ways that compromised safety; the auditor says he faced retaliation for reporting quality issues.

Boeing faces an uphill battle to restore public trust.

Kabatek LLC represented several families impacted by the Lion Air crash. We are committed to holding Boeing and commercial airlines accountable and ensuring that passengers and their families understand their legal rights and how to exercise them.