A "door plug" on an Alaska Airlines flight broke in mid-air on January 5, 2024 (Credit: NTSB/ Public Domain)

On January 5, 2024, 171 passengers and six crew members boarded Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 in Portland, Oregon, for what they believed would be a short, uneventful trip to Ontario, California. However, just ten minutes after take-off, they heard a loud explosion. Before anyone could react, an aircraft panel broke off and flew away, leaving behind a gaping hole. It was later revealed that the panel was a "door plug." It covers optional emergency exits in some Boeing 737-9 Max airplanes.

Passengers were asked to remain calm and put on the oxygen masks released due to the loss of cabin pressure. Fortunately, no one was seated in 26A and 26B, the seats closest to the broken plug. Also, since the flight was still ascending, everyone aboard had their seatbelts fastened. But the strong wind blowing through the hole did result in some passengers losing earbuds and cell phones. A teenager sitting close by even lost his shirt! Thankfully, the pilots were able to turn around and return to Portland quickly. While the incident rattled some nerves, no one was injured.

"We are very, very fortunate that this didn't end up in something more tragic," said Jennifer Homendy, the chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

An NTSB official examining the gap in the aircraft (Credit: NTSB/ Public Domain)

Following the harrowing accident, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) grounded 171 Boeing planes with the same design as the Alaska Airlines jet for inspection. The cause of the panel breaking off has yet to be determined. However, some experts speculate the door bolts may not have been tightened correctly. On January 9, 2024, United Airlines added credence to the theory after finding loose bolts on some of their Boeing 737-9 Max planes. Alaska Airlines has also reported similar issues with their fleet.

"Since we began preliminary inspections on Saturday, we have found instances that appear to relate to installation issues in the door plug — for example, a bolt that needed additional tightening," United officials said in a statement.

The broken panel was found in the backyard of a home in Portland (Credit: NTSB/ Public Domain)

NTSB officials have recovered the errant panel from the backyard of a Portland home. They hope it will help them identify the cause of the accident. Boeing, the airplane's manufacturer, is working closely with the regulators. The company has promised to resolve the issue and correct it.

"Safety is our top priority, and we deeply regret the impact this event has had on our customers and their passengers," Boeing said. "We agree with and fully support the FAA's decision to require immediate inspections of 737-9 airplanes with the same configuration as the affected airplane. In addition, a Boeing technical team is supporting the NTSB's investigation into [Friday's] event."

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