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NTSB Official: Alaska Airlines Incident Could Have Been ‘Far More Catastrophic’

A potential disaster may have been avoided on Friday evening when a panel on a Boeing aircraft exploded as an Alaska Airlines flight was flying at an altitude of 16,000 feet, a statement from an NTSB official revealed on Saturday.

The seats next to the explosion, which occurred when a component known as a door plug detached from the plane, were unoccupied, and the plane’s altitude likely meant that passengers were seated with their seatbelts fastened, according to National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy during a press conference on Saturday.

Headrests from two adjacent passenger seats were dislodged, one seat’s back was missing, and clothing was found in the area following the incident, which led to the depressurization of the cabin and resulted in mayhem, Homendy stated.

Photograph depicting the missing panel. This mid-air event prompted the Alaska Airlines flight to make an emergency landing in Portland, Ore., on Friday.Courtesy Kyle Rinker

“We are extremely fortunate that this did not culminate in something more catastrophic,” asserted the NTSB chair. “No one was occupying seats 26A and 26B, where that door plug is situated.”

The aircraft was merely 10 minutes away from its departure airport, Portland International, when the panel detached at 6:38 p.m. Friday, with 171 passengers and six crew members onboard.

The passenger cabin underwent sudden decompression after the panel detached, resulting in a significant hole on the port side of the aircraft, Homendy explained.

The experience must have been “truly harrowing” for those on board, she noted.

The 737 Max 9 was en route to Ontario International Airport in San Bernardino County, California, but it returned to Portland and executed an emergency landing, as authorities reported.

The flight was “only 10 minutes out from the airport when the door blew,” Homendy narrated.

Officials were still in the process of searching for the door plug, which they believe fell to the ground in the community of Cedar Hills, approximately 7 miles west of central Portland.

Cabin Experienced ‘Swift Decompression’

While no passengers suffered severe injuries, the chair mentioned that some onboard individuals were treated for minor injuries.

She speculated that the situation could have been much more severe if the flight had been at its cruising altitude of 35,000 feet, with individuals standing, walking, or using the lavatory.

“We could have ended up with a much graver incident,” expressed Homendy.

The panel detachment resulted in “swift decompression” of the cabin, she revealed. This can induce hypoxia, a state of oxygen deficiency, which can cause dizziness, loss of consciousness, and potentially permanent brain damage, as per the FAA.

Footage from inside the flight revealed the release of oxygen masks from the ceilings.

The aircraft was at 16,000 feet, Homendy mentioned, and it subsequently descended safely to ground level on Friday. An FAA official informed NBC affiliate WFLA of Tampa, Florida, last year that approximately 12,000 feet is the threshold at which passengers could be safe without additional oxygen.

The NTSB is leading the investigation and will commence its first full day of inquiry on Sunday, as Homendy indicated. She stated that she will refrain from speculating on the cause until more information is available.

Several 737 Max 9 Planes Grounded

Alaska Airlines confirmed that it operates 65 of the Boeing aircraft and initially grounded all of them. On Saturday, the airline stated that it inspected and authorized 18 of its Boeing 737 Max 9 aircraft.

However, these planes will remain grounded after the FAA issued an urgent airworthiness directive, mandating the grounding of an estimated 171 of the planes for inspection under specific conditions, Alaska announced on Saturday evening.

In a statement, Alaska mentioned that the 18 planes, which underwent “thorough inspections as part of extensive maintenance checks,” will continue to be out of service until their inspections meet the requirements outlined in the FAA directive.

The groundings forced the airline to cancel 160 flights, affecting an estimated 23,000 passengers, as reported by Alaska.

The temporary grounding is being felt industry-wide.

United Airlines possesses 79 of the 737 Max 9 aircraft and has temporarily suspended operations for all of them, according to the airline’s announcement on Saturday. It was working to accommodate affected customers on alternative flights.

“We are collaborating with the FAA to seek clarifications on the inspection process and the stipulations for reinstating all MAX 9 aircraft into service,” the airline communicated in a statement.

What are Door Plugs?

A door plug is a panel that is secured in place, in part, through air pressure.

It is utilized instead of an emergency exit and could be deemed necessary based on an airline’s plane configuration – particularly relying on its passenger capacity, mentioned Homendy.

The aircraft utilized on Friday was configured to accommodate 178 people, and thus extra emergency exits were not obligatory, she explained. For a capacity of 215 passengers, those door plugs would need to be converted into emergency exits, according to the board chair.

Passengers on a plane with a door plug would typically observe a window at the location, even though it would appear as a door from the outside.

The NTSB plans to closely examine the door plug on the opposite side of the aircraft, essentially serving as a mirror image of the dislodged one, as mentioned by Homendy.

Investigators will scrutinize its fastening, structure, as well as the aircraft’s air pressurization system, among other factors, Homendy detailed.

The 737 Max 9 involved in Friday’s incident was essentially brand new, with Homendy stating that it was delivered to Alaska Airlines on November 11, and Alaska indicating in its statement that it took delivery on October 31.

The chair expressed that it was a prudent move for the FAA to temporarily ground the model. “I’m very encouraged that the FAA took action,” she affirmed.

According to the board chair, investigators are expecting to obtain additional passenger photos and video footage from the time of the incident, and they hope someone will locate the door plug and report it to the authorities.

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