Video: Alaska Air Boeing plane blows out window, fuselage after take-off
A Boeing Co. 737 Max jet operated by Alaska Airlines made an emergency landing at Portland International Airport after a window and a portion of the plane's fuselage blew out shortly after take-off. Image Credit: X

Alaska Airlines will ground its entire fleet of Boeing Co. 737 Max-9 aircraft after a fuselage section in the rear part of the brand-new jet blew out shortly after takeoff.

The airline is taking the "precautionary step" to temporarily ground the fleet of 65 planes until completion of full maintenance and inspection, Chief Executive Officer Ben Minicucci said. Flight 1282 was carrying 171 passengers and six crew from Portland, Oregon, to Ontario, California. Nobody was injured in the incident.

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China's aviation regulator is conducting an emergency meeting to consider a response to the incident, including a possible grounding of the Boeing Max fleet in the country, according to two people familiar with the situation, who asked not to be identified discussing private deliberations. The aircraft variant involved in the Alaska Air incident isn't flown by Chinese carriers.

Trouble for Boeing

The grounding by a loyal Boeing customer marks the most severe response to an incident since the manufacturer's entire fleet of Max aircraft was temporarily taken out of service in 2019 following two deadly crashes. The 737 Max is by far Boeing's most popular aircraft and its biggest source of revenue, with single-aisle aircraft like the Max and the corresponding Airbus SE A320neo family used the most widely flown shorter routes.

China was the first country to ground the 737 Max after the two crashes several years ago. Relations have only gradually improved, with China taking the first delivery of a larger 787 model in several years in December. It has yet to resume 737 deliveries.

What happened now?

After taking off, Flight 1282 was in the air for about 20 minutes and reached an altitude of about 16,000 feet (4,800 meters).

Crew then reported a "pressurization issue," according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Images circulating on social media showed the rear left part of the fuselage with a hole resembling the opening for a door. Inside the aircraft, which was delivered to Alaska Airlines only in October, part of the cabin wall had also torn off, exposing insulation material.

Video footage showed the aircraft landing in Portland again in darkness, with passengers seated close to the gaping hole. The cabin erupted in applause and cheers when the plane made a safe landing.

The National Transportation Safety Board and the FAA said they are investigating the matter. Boeing said it's gathering more information and is in contact with the airline, and a technical team is ready to support the probe. The European Union Aviation Safety Agency said it's checking if it will need to mandate anything.

Configuration issues

The 737 Max has modular fuselage layouts, allowing for emergency doors to be installed more variably depending on the number of seats. This gives operators greater flexibility with the cabin configuration.

On the 737-9 Max, Boeing includes a cabin exit door aft of the wings, but before the rear exit door. This is activated in dense seating configurations to meet evacuation requirements. The doors are not activated on Alaska Airlines aircraft and are permanently "plugged."

The grounding, while voluntary, is a major setback for Boeing, which has grappled with manufacturing defects and costly repairs in recent years. Boeing has been forced to fix misaligned drilling holes in the rear section of the 737, and most recently the FAA said it's monitoring targeted inspections of Boeing 737 MAX airplanes to look for a possible loose bolt in the rudder control system.

The Alaska Airlines aircraft experienced pressurization issues twice on Jan. 4, the Air Current reported, citing two people familiar with the matter. A warning light had prompted Alaska Air to remove the jet from extended-range operations, or ETOPs, the outlet said.

Impact on airlines

The temporary grounding, which will impact tens of thousands of customers with cancelled flights, involves almost 30 per cent of the Alaska Air's 227 Boeing 737 family aircraft. Alaska Air is the second-biggest operator of the 737 Max 9 variant, behind United Airlines Holdings Inc.

Other airlines that operate the variant include Copa Airlines SA, with 29 units, and Aeromexico with 19. FlyDubai, which has three Boeing Max 9 aircraft, said it's aware of the reports and said its planes have a different cabin configuration than the Alaska model.

Inspections are expected to be completed in the next few days, Minicucci said.

The jet didn't appear to have suffered the type of powerful decompression that occurred on a Southwest Airlines Co. plane in 2018 when part of an exploding engine shattered a window of the Boeing 737-700, partly sucking a woman seated next to it from the plane and killing her. Video from the Alaska Air craft showed passengers seated near the gaping hole.

"While this type of occurrence is rare, our flight crew was trained and prepared to safely manage the situation," the carrier said. Alaska Air operates an all-Boeing fleet.