This post has been updated to reflect new information
Travelers on an Alaska Airlines flight leaving Portland, Oregon spent 20 frightening minutes on a wind-whipped Boeing 737 Max following a loss of pressurization described as “explosive” by flight attendants.
As it approached 16-thousand feet following takeoff for Ontario, California, the pilots of Flight 1282 declared an emergency. There was trouble with the pressurization. A large section of the back left fuselage blew outward taking a piece of an unoccupied window seat with it. A teen in the aisle seat reportedly had his shirt ripped off from the force of the air quickly exiting the passenger cabin. One flight attendant was said to have been injured.
Alaska announced it would pull all 65 of its Boeing 737 Max 9 aircraft out of service for inspection.
Both the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration announced an investigation into an event that, while certainly terrifying for all aboard, could have ended in disaster.
The 737-9 Max had been in service just two months. Jon Ostrower reports on his Air Currents website that it had been removed from ETOPs flights the day before due to what was thought to be “spurious” illumination of the pressurization system warning light.
On to the larger question of whether this latest event (see below for two previous Max pressurization problems in 2023) and assorted other issues will prompt other Max operators to follow suit and ground their Max aircraft pending inspection.
Those kinds of questions begat more questions because just last month, Boeing asked the FAA for an exemption to allow the airplane to fly with a known hazard related to the engine anti-ice system. Airlines could use a pilot workaround while the planemaker comes up with a permanent solution, Boeing argues. In other words, the Max can fly on a course veering between safety and ambiguity. The FAA has yet to respond.
It’s not just the airlines and the regulators who have decisions to make. Friday’s harrowing event will undoubtedly remind passengers of something most prefer not to wonder; is the Max safe? The many 737 Max critics whose concerns once made headlines have faded from the news. The validity of their arguments remains and therefore will be resuscitated as you will discover in the next paragraph.
Ed Pierson, was a former manager at Boeing’s 737 factory until he retired in 2018, frustrated with what he thought were hazardous manufacturing problems at the Renton, Washington plant. Two months later Lionair Flight 610 crashed followed in March 2019 by the crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 610.
At a congressional hearing in December 2019, Pierson spoke about his experience at Boeing, saying the company was “prioritizing production speed over quality, placing both manufacturing employees and the flying public at risk.”
When we met in Seattle last fall, Pierson was hard at work creating a database of Max-specific service difficulty reports and producing the podcast Warning Bells. Several episodes do a deep dive into Boeing production issues on the Max. More than five years after the LionAir and Ethiopian disasters he is trying to counter the assessment of the FAA that all is well with the airliner, because he insists, all is not well.
“I feel like the public is not aware of this, he told me. “You know, the FAA is saying the plane is perfectly safe, all of these kinds of things. And I think that the data shows otherwise, my experience shows otherwise.”
Today, 171 shaken Alaska Airlines passengers have an experience that could make them question the Max. Should that sentiment grow, the consequences could be enormous.
Feb 7, 2023 Flair Airlines Boeing 737-8 Max emergency landing due to decompression at 37-thousand feet
Oct 13, 2023 Air Canada Boeing 737-8 MAX emergency landing due to decompression at 33-thousand feet
Author of The New York Times bestseller, The Crash Detectives, I am also a journalist, public speaker and broadcaster specializing in aviation and travel.