Certain Boeing Max jets grounded after Alaska Airlines emergency landing

By Tori B. Powell, Adrienne Vogt and Matt Meyer, CNN

Updated 10:39 p.m. ET, January 6, 2024
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7:18 p.m. ET, January 6, 2024

Alaska Airlines passenger says she drafted final texts to loved ones after section of plane blew out

From CNN’s Jillian Sykes

 

Stephanie King wears an oxygen mask while recording a video aboard her Alaska Airlines flight on Friday.
Stephanie King wears an oxygen mask while recording a video aboard her Alaska Airlines flight on Friday. Stephanie King

Stephanie King told CNN she was returning to her home in California after a visit to Portland when she heard a loud roar of wind on her Alaska Airlines flight Friday. 

King said she was seated in an aisle seat in row 12. Several rows back, a section of the Boeing 737 Max 9 aircraft had blown out shortly after takeoff.

“I just knew that something bad had happened. I wasn’t sure what was going on and felt pretty scared,” she told CNN by phone Saturday.

King said flight attendants made announcements, but because the plane was open, it was too loud for her to hear much of what was being said.

Several passengers closer to the hole in the plane were frantic and moved to empty seats away from the incident, King told CNN.

“One of the ladies was screaming and crying. She was inconsolable. She kept saying, 'My son! My son! He got his shirt ripped off!'" King said. “It was absolutely surreal.”

Fearing for her safety, King told CNN she took out her phone to record video and draft final text messages to her loved ones.

“Because I was flying alone, I drafted some text messages to my boyfriend and my mom to say something was going on, that I was scared and I love them,” she said.

King said while it felt like “forever,” the plane safely landed less than 10 minutes after the incident. 

“That was more than enough time to freak out though. I heard that peoples’ cell phones and shoes and shirts got thrown out the window. Anything could’ve happened,” she added.

Shortly after the emergency landing, firefighters boarded the plane to see if there were injuries. Once the area was cleared, the de-boarding process started, King told CNN.

“It was then really calm. Everybody was just in shock. We were all still so confused. Everybody was super quiet. It was eerie, actually, how quiet and calm everybody was just because it was so unreal,” she told CNN.

King said she is still processing the event, but she has received communication and unspecified compensation from Alaska Airlines.

“It’s unsettling that there have been so many issues with this specific type of plane. I hope something is done so that this doesn’t happen again because it went okay this time but might not next time,” King said.

Aircraft troubles: Engineering and quality problems have plagued Boeing in recent years. The aircraft maker has seen a string of incidents that have resulted in tragedies, groundings and ongoing worries about safety.

All 737 Max planes were grounded in 2019 across dozens of countries following crashes of two of its jets — one in Ethiopia and one near Indonesia — that killed all 346 people on board. It was determined a design flaw in the plane was a major cause of the crashes. The US grounding lasted 20 months, with planes starting to return to service in December 2020.

7:06 p.m. ET, January 6, 2024

A "mini explosion" and rapid depressurization: Alaska Airlines passenger describes "disorienting experience"

From CNN's Sharif Paget

A passenger on the Alaska Airlines flight that saw a section of the plane blow off on Friday said the experience was "traumatic," "tense" and "jarring."

"There were a few moments where we weren't sure what was going to happen," Nick Hoch, 33, told CNN over the phone Saturday. 

As the plane was gaining altitude shortly after taking off from Portland, Hoch said he heard a "loud boom." He said it was like a "mini explosion" followed by a rapid depressurization of the cabin. 

"And a mist or cloud whooshed past me that kind of hit me in the face," he said. "People's hair was flying all over the place."

Photos from passengers appear to show a section of the Boeing 737 Max 9 — a fuselage plug, which appears to passengers like the typical interior of a commercial jet, with a side and window — blew off in flight, causing decompression.

"After the mini 'boom,' it felt like the plane kind of jolted," Hoch continued. "We had our oxygen masks fall from the top and we put those on immediately, but it was a disorienting experience."

"I was pretty startled and frightened, and I think other folks were pretty distraught as well," he added.

Hoch said he was sitting on the left side of the plane, a few rows in front of where the panel blew off. "There were people much closer who I spoke with who lost AirPods out of their ears," he said. 

Soon after the portion of the plane blew off, Hoch said people were "remarkably calm" as they sat quietly listening to the flight crew. 

Hoch told CNN the flight crew and pilot did a great job, calming and reassuring passengers. 

"There were a few frantic passengers but mostly everybody was calm," he said. 

4:19 p.m. ET, January 6, 2024

Alaska Airlines says 18 Boeing 737 Max 9 aircraft have been inspected and returned to service

From CNN's Pete Muntean

Alaska Airlines says about a quarter of its Boeing 737 Max 9 aircraft have been returned to service after “thorough” inspections, and that the remaining inspections will be “completed in the next few days.”

The inspections came after Alaska announced it would temporarily ground its fleet of the aircraft model following Friday night's emergency landing — and after an order from the Federal Aviation Administration to ground and inspect certain 737 Max 9 planes nationwide.

The planes were returned to service following "in-depth and thorough plug door inspections," Alaska said in a statement. The "plug door" refers to a portion of the plane's fuselage that the manufacturer can put in place instead of an emergency exit door, depending on the configuration requested by an airline. This is the portion of the plane that blew off Friday night, according to firsthand accounts and video from passengers, leaving a refrigerator-sized hole.

“The inspection process of the remaining 737-9 aircraft is expected to be completed in the next few days,” Alaska said in the statement. “We will provide additional updates on the progress of our inspections.”

CNN has asked the airline to confirm if its inspections, which it says were conducted “early this morning,” comply with the inspections the FAA mandated as part of its order.

4:05 p.m. ET, January 6, 2024

Tragedies, groundings and safety concerns: Boeing plagued by string of incidents over past few years

From CNN's Eva Rothenberg and David Goldman

A pile of debris sits just outside the impact crater where Ethiopian Airlines Flight ET302 crashed during recovery efforts in Bishoftu, Ethiopia, on March 11, 2019.
A pile of debris sits just outside the impact crater where Ethiopian Airlines Flight ET302 crashed during recovery efforts in Bishoftu, Ethiopia, on March 11, 2019. (Jemal Countess/Getty Images)

Although it’s unclear what or who was to blame for the Alaska Airlines plane incident, engineering and quality problems have plagued Boeing in recent years. The aircraft maker has seen a string of incidents that have resulted in tragedies, groundings and ongoing worries about safety.

In perhaps the most notable incident, all 737 Max planes were grounded in 2019 across dozens of countries following crashes of two of its jets — one in Ethiopia and one near Indonesia — that killed all 346 people on board. It was determined a design flaw in the plane was a major cause of the crashes.

The US grounding lasted 20 months, with planes starting to return to service in December 2020. Other countries, including China, kept the planes on the ground even longer.

The Max grounding was one of the most expensive corporate tragedies in history, costing the company more than $20 billion.

And the costs are ongoing. 

Boeing has faced massive operating losses in recent quarters as it tries to deliver the huge backlog of 737 Max planes to customers and racks up cost overruns on other planes, including the aircraft that will replace the current Air Force One jets.

Boeing has encountered a slew of other problems in recent years, and as recently as December, when the FAA urged airlines to inspect all 737 Max planes in their fleets after the discovery of missing bolts in two planes’ rudder control systems.

Read more about Boeing's issues.

2:38 p.m. ET, January 6, 2024

Boeing supports FAA's temporary grounding decision and NTSB investigation, company says

From CNN’s Pete Muntean

Boeing says it supports the Federal Aviation Administration’s decision to temporarily ground the Boeing plane model involved in the Alaska Airlines blowout incident. 

“Safety is our top priority and we deeply regret the impact this event has had on our customers and their passengers. 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,” Boeing spokesperson Jessica Kowal said in a statement to CNN Saturday. 

The company also indicated its technical team is supporting the National Transportation Safety Board investigation into Friday’s incident, where a section of the Alaska plane — a fuselage plug, which appears to passengers like the typical interior of a commercial jet — blew off the aircraft during the plane's ascent.

2:44 p.m. ET, January 6, 2024

United Airlines will have about 60 cancellations due to the grounding of some of its fleet, airline says

From CNN’s Pete Muntean

United Airlines says the temporary grounding of its Boeing 737 Max 9 aircraft is expected to cause about 60 cancellations Saturday.

“We are working directly with impacted customers to find them alternative travel options,” United said in a statement.

A spokesperson said United's fleet includes 79 of the Max 9 aircraft — the specific model involved in the Alaska Airlines blowout incident Friday night.

2:35 p.m. ET, January 6, 2024

Plane in Alaska Air incident has been in service for about 3 months, records show

From CNN’s Greg Wallace and Pete Muntean

This file photo, taken at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport in Arizona on November 23, 2023, shows the Alaska Airlines plane that lost part of its fuselage in flight on January 5, 2024.
This file photo, taken at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport in Arizona on November 23, 2023, shows the Alaska Airlines plane that lost part of its fuselage in flight on January 5, 2024. (Jason Whitebird)

The Boeing 737 Max 9 involved in Friday’s Alaska Airlines incident has been in service for about three months and has flown about 150 times since October 2023, according to the flight-tracking site FlightAware and Federal Aviation Administration records.

The aircraft is listed in an FAA database as having been manufactured in 2023. The plane, registered as N704AL, flew its first tracked flight on October 15 and was certified as airworthy by the FAA 10 days later. Its FAA certificate was issued on November 2, according to administration records.

Flight testing is a standard part of the process to certify aircraft.

The plane's first tracked flight with an Alaska Airlines flight number was on October 31, according to FlightAware records. Since then, the aircraft has made several transcontinental flights to Boston, Fort Lauderdale, and New York City, and has repeatedly flown in and out of Alaska’s Seattle headquarters. 

2:30 p.m. ET, January 6, 2024

Senator on transportation committee says Alaska Airlines incident calls 737 Max ungrounding "into question"

From CNN's Pete Muntean

Sen. JD Vance is seen in the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on November 14.
Sen. JD Vance is seen in the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on November 14. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call/Getty Images)

Republican Sen. JD Vance of Ohio says “last night’s near catastrophe” involving an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 Max 9 calls the Federal Aviation Administration’s November 2020 ungrounding of the Max fleet “into question.”

Vance — who sits on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, which oversees the FAA — was among the first on Capitol Hill to lob criticism since Friday night’s emergency landing of Alaska Airlines flight 1282 in Portland, Oregon.

Seven minutes into the flight, a refrigerator-sized hole was blown in the side of the plane’s fuselage, causing a rapid depressurization of the passenger cabin. Officials say 171 passengers and six crew members avoided serious injuries.

The agency grounded the 737 Max for 20 months after two crashes abroad killed 346 people. 

“Pilots have filed safety complaints on these aircraft, many of which had just rolled off the production line, at a rate which is unbecoming of American aviation,” Vance said in a statement.

“My own family has flown on 737-MAX aircraft multiple times in the past year,” Vance said. “Every American deserves a full explanation from Boeing and the FAA on what’s gone wrong and on the steps that are being taken to ensure another incident does not occur in the future.”

Shortly after Vance's comments, the FAA announced it was temporarily grounding about 171 Boeing Max jets of the specific type involved in the Alaska Airlines incident.

2:18 p.m. ET, January 6, 2024

FAA orders grounding of over 150 Boeing 737 Max 9 aircraft

From CNN's Pete Muntean and Gregory Wallace

The Federal Aviation Administration is ordering the "temporary grounding of certain Boeing 737 MAX 9 aircraft," the model of Boeing plane involved in the Alaska Airlines blowout incident.

The FAA said the planes must be parked until emergency inspections are performed, which will “take around four to eight hours per aircraft.” 

The order impacts 171 Boeing 737 Max 9 jets, the agency said. 

The Max was famously subject to a nearly two-year grounding after two fatal crashes of its Max 8 model involving a different flaw.