Everything we know about Boeing chaos after Alaska Airlines flight

One month ago, Alaska Airlines flight 1282 made an emergency landing in Portland, Oregon after a doorplug, a panel of the fuselage near the rear of the aircraft, blew out midair as the plane reached 16,000 feet.

Several passengers on board were injured but later cleared by medical professionals, the airline said. Debris from the aircraft, including iPhones and the doorplug, were found on the side of the streets and in a school teacher’s yard intact.

The 5 January 2024 incident forced the grounding of all Boeing 737 Max 9s and prompted investigations by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), into the aircraft manufacturer and Spirit AeroSystems, which made the doorplug.

The grounding led to hundreds of flight cancellations. A preliminary report for the NTSB investigation revealed that four critical bolts keeping the door plug in place were missing from the plane.

Boeing CEO David Calhoun addressed the company in a town hall after the emergency, saying that the corporation would address the incident “acknowledging our mistake”.

It’s now believed that the plane did not have the critical bolts it needed to keep the doorplug in place when it left the factory, according to reports. Following the incident, Alaska Airlines and United Airlines, which operates 79 of the planes, said they, too, found loose bolts on some of their aircrafts.

Models of the planes only began flying again at the end of January, once they underwent extensive inspections overseen by the FAA.

However, Boeing officials also discovered a problem with their planes that will require the rework of 50 undelivered aircrafts.

Here’s everything we know about the saga:

Ongoing investigations

The Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board launched investigations into the flight almost immediately after the emergency. Jennifer Homendy, chair of the NTSB, called the event “terrifying” while the FAA said “this incident should have never happened and it cannot happen again.”

A preliminary report for the NTSB investigation published on Tuesday (6 February) revealed that four critical bolts were missing from the airplane keeping the door plug intact.

The bolts that appeared to be missing prevent the plug’s upward movement, the NTSB said. The damage to the aircraft was consistent with the door plug moving upward, outward and being ejected during the separation. The NTSB previously said that all 12 stop fittings disengaged on the part.

Mr Calhoun addressed the report in a written statement. “Whatever final conclusions are reached, Boeing is accountable for what happened,” he said. “An event like this must not happen on an airplane that leaves our factory. We simply must do better for our customers and their passengers.”

The company said it is implementing a comprehensive plan to strengthen quality and the confidence of our stakeholders.

The FAA has halted the production of 737 Max planes. It said it is also investigating the company’s manufacturing practices and production lines.

“We will not agree to any request from Boeing for an expansion in production or approve additional production lines for the 737 Max until we are satisfied that the quality control issues uncovered during this process are resolved,” FAA Administrator Mike Whitaker said.

What exactly happened on board

During a news conference following the incident, NTSB chair Jennifer Homendy said that the auto depressurisation light for the airplane, which was on its way to Ontario, California, lit up shortly after takeoff.

The doorplug later blew out, resulting in rapid decompression. The cockpit door subsequently flew open, to the surprise of the two captains on board. There was a lot of damage to panelling, trim and windows, Ms Homendy said.

At some point, the oxygen masks on the plane dropped down. Four minors were on board and four flight attendants immediately went to check if they were ok. Passengers reported being scared for their lives and calling their loved ones.

The plane then returned to Portland International Airport.

History of Boeing 737 Max series safety problems

The January incident wasn’t the first time the quality of Boeing’s planes was called into question. In October 2018, a faulty sensor on a Max 8 jet activated an anti-stall system causing a commercial plane to crash near Jakarta, Indonesia, resulting in the deaths of all 189 people on board.

The following year, a Max 8 plane operating for Ethiopian Airlines and heading toward Nairobi crashed in a field six minutes after takeoff. In that incident, all 157 people on board lost their lives.

Two days following the Alaska Airlines incident, the US Department of Justice entered into a settlement with Boeing in relation to the accidents and the Max series. The company had previously been charged with one count of conspiracy.

The settlement totaled $2.5bn, with sums of the money to be split into compensation for Boeing customers, a crash-victim beneficiary fund and a criminal monetary payment.

Late last month, Boeing was back in the spotlight over safety concerns after one of its planes experienced an engine malfunction and another Boeing aircraft had its nose wheel fall off as the plane was on the runway.

On Sunday, Boeing officials said the company discovered that Spirit Aerosystems had misdrilled some of the holes on about 50 of Boeing’s 737 Max jets.

“A member of our team identified an issue that does not conform to engineering standards,” Spirit AeroSystems spokesman Joe Buccino told CNN. “Once notified, we began immediate actions to identify and implement appropriate repair solutions. We are in close communication with Boeing on this matter.”

How are airlines responding?

Both United Airlines and Alaska Airlines have alluded to potentially turning to Airbus for future orders of airplanes. During a CNBC appearance in January, United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby expressed frustration over how “manufacturing challenges do keep happening at Boeing.”

He added: “This isn’t new. I’m disappointed in that.” When asked if he’s looking at Airbus, Boeing’s biggest competitor, he said, “I’ll wait and see. Obviously, there’s only one other manufacturer that’s really an option for us.”

Speaking to NBC News, Alaska Airlines CEO Ben Minicucci said the company will do “what’s best for Alaska long term, in terms of fleet mix for us,” while confirming that Hawaiian Airlines, which the company is in the process of buying, uses Airbus planes.

What happened to the passengers on flight 1282

Alaska Airlines paid the 171 passengers on the 5 January flight $1,500 as “an immediate gesture of care” and refunded them for their flights. Additionally, the company provided mental health resources.

Some passengers, however, took matters into their own hands and sued Boeing.

In a suit filed in the Superior Court of Washington for King Country, where part of the emergency occurred, last month, seven plaintiffs alleged that those on board suffered bleeding ears, bruises and headaches.

Daniel Laurence, an attorney representing the plaintiffs said, “This nightmare has caused economic, physical and ongoing emotional consequences that have understandably deeply affected our clients.”