Part of an Alaskan Airlines plane blew out mid-flight—leaving a massive hole in the hull. It has resuscitated old fears about Boeing’s 737 Max model—which was implicated in two horrific airline crashes back in 2019.
Wait, what happened to this plane?
The Alaska Airlines flight took off from Portland, Oregon, for Ontario, California, at 5 pm on Friday. Within 10 minutes of taking to the air, a portion of the plane simply tore off—while the plane was at an altitude of about 16,000 feet: “Those on board described wind blowing through a gaping hole that showed the night sky and the city lights below.” More frightening is this: “[A] boy sitting in a row with his mother had his shirt sucked off him and out of the plane.”
It looked like this:
The happy news: Thanks to sheer luck, no one was sitting in the two seats—26A and 26B—right next to that part of the hull. Also: It happened soon after take-off—before the plane reached cruising altitude and the seat belt signs were switched off. As a result, there were only minor injuries. Number of passengers on board: 171.
What went wrong: According to aviation officials, the bit that blew off is called a “plug door.” Airlines don’t need all the exits designed for the plane—which are sealed by the manufacturer on their request:
A manufacturer can put a plug door in place of an emergency exit door, depending on the configuration requested by an airline. “What you would see in the cabin if you are a passenger is a window and just part of the cabin, you would not see those as doors,” [federal officials] said.
Investigators are still looking for the door that blew off—which likely landed in a Portland neighbourhood. They will likely compare what happened to this particular plug door—compared to the other one that stayed put.
The fallout: The FAA has ordered the temporary grounding of 171 Boeing 737 Max 9 planes. Turkish Airlines has also suspended its flights for now. Indian authorities have not followed suit. They have instead asked all airlines to conduct a safety inspection asap—as an "abundant precautionary measure." Other global operators include Aeromexico, Icelandair and Panama’s Copa Airlines.
Already about 50 IndiGo A320neos are grounded for months due to PW's inability to supply replacement engines. If the MAX troubles worsen, along with PW's unending GTF engine issues, India is staring at yet another capacity crunch that could mean fewer flights and higher airfares—something that's seen last summer when GoAir had collapsed.
About the plane: This particular plane was declared airworthy on October 25—and delivered to the airline on October 31. It has logged 145 flights since. The 737 Max 9 is a relatively new model. In numbers: “Of the nearly 2.9 million flights scheduled globally in January, 4.3% are planned to be carried out using Max 8 planes, while 0.7% are slated to use the Max 9.” FYI: The Max is the best-selling plane in Boeing’s history—and accounts for 76% of Boeing’s orders as of today.
Doesn’t Boeing have a really bad record?
In recent years, yes. As the Times puts it, “Boeing’s 737 Max airliners have perhaps the most worrisome history of any modern jetliner currently in service.” The Max 8 model has the worst track record: two catastrophic crashes within five months of each other—back in 2018/2019. Total number killed: 346:
- In October, 2018, a Lion Air flight went down shortly after take-off from Jakarta— killing all 189 people on board. The aircraft was less than three months old.
- In March, 2019, an Ethiopian Airlines flight from Addis Ababa to Nairobi crashed within six minutes of takeoff, killing all 157 of its passengers and crew.
What went wrong: Boeing tried to blame both crashes on human error. But the first sign of trouble was a Seattle Times investigation—which was based on internal documents. It showed the following:
One: The government regulator—in this case, the FAA—had “outsourced” its duty of oversight to Boeing. The company was in a hurry to get the planes in the air, which in turn put pressure on the agency to “delegate safety assessments to Boeing itself, and to speedily approve the resulting analysis.” As a result, the safety analysis of the 737 Max was prepared by Boeing engineers, not FAA officials.
A congressional investigation later uncovered collusion between FAA and Boeing officials:
[B]ased on whistleblower information and testimony, it appeared Boeing and FAA officials had “established a predetermined outcome,” and that Boeing officials “inappropriately coached” test pilots in the MCAS simulator. The report alleged, “It appears, in this instance, FAA and Boeing were attempting to cover up important information that may have contributed to the 737 MAX tragedies.”
Two: As a result, no one caught a serious problem with a new flight control system. It was designed to push the plane’s nose down—to avoid stalling at high speed. However, this automated manoeuvre could be triggered by input from a single plane sensor. As a result, the pilots of Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines struggled to keep the plane up—but its systems repeatedly pushed its nose down.
Three: Boeing failed to flag the new system with its clients—or offer new guidance:
Since MCAS was supposed to activate only in extreme circumstances far outside the normal flight envelope, Boeing decided that 737 pilots needed no extra training on the system—and indeed that they didn’t even need to know about it. It was not mentioned in their flight manuals.
The really damning bit:
[C]ongressional investigators found internal documents showing that, after Boeing realised the impact MCAS would have on pilot training and FAA certification, some Boeing employees suggested removing all references to MCAS from training manuals.
The fallout: 737 Max planes were grounded for over 20 months around the world—severely impacting the global aviation industry. The planes were finally allowed back in the air in November, 2020. Boeing paid $2.5 billion in 2021 to settle charges that it had conspired to defraud the FAA. In 2022, it shelled out another $200 million to stock market regulators—to settle allegations that it had misled investors by blaming human error for the crashes.
Have there been any problems since?
Last month, the company urged airlines to inspect the more than 1,300 delivered Max planes for a possible loose bolt in the rudder-control system. Over the summer, Boeing said a key supplier had improperly drilled holes in a component that helps to maintain cabin pressure.
Point to note: Boeing’s long haul model Dreamliner has also experienced its shares of safety issues. Its deliveries were repeatedly delayed due to a series of flaws discovered by regulators—which included paper-thin gaps in the plane’s body.
The bottomline: Last week, Boeing asked US regulators for a safety exemption for a new model of the 737 Max. The problem: an anti-icing system that could cause damage—resulting in “loss of control of the airplane.” Boeing wants pilots to remember to limit the use of the icing system to avoid disaster—while it develops a “long term solution.” The kicker: This problem is exclusive to the 737 Max.
What a pilots union said: “You get our attention when you say people might get killed. We’re not interested in seeing exemptions and accommodations that depend on human memory.”
The Guardian and CNN have a good overview of what happened. CNBC has more on the grounding. New York Times has more on Boeing’s track record. Vox has a good overview over the previous scandal—while the New Yorker has a scathing piece on regulatory failure in the US. ABC News has more on the recent request for an exemption.