Alaska Airlines grounds fleet after plane window blows out mid-air

A passenger plane has been forced to make an emergency landing after a window blew out, tearing off a boy’s shirt, shortly after takeoff.

The Alaska Airlines jet, which left Portland, Oregon, bound for Ontario, California, had been in the air for less than 20 minutes when it began its descent.

The plane, a 737 Max 9, departed on Friday at 5.06pm Pacific Time (5.06pm GMT) reaching 16,000ft (4,876m), when the incident occurred, according to Flightradar24 data.

All 171 passengers and six crew landed back safely in Portland at 5.26pm (1.26am GMT).

People sit on a plane next to a missing window and portion of a side wall of an Alaska Airlines Flight 1282, which had been bound for Ontario, California and suffered depressurization soon after departing, in Portland, Oregon, U.S., January 5, 2024 in this picture obtained from social media. Instagram/@strawberrvy via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT.
Passengers on the plane sitting next to the blown out window (Photo: Instagram/@strawberrvy via Reuters)

Evan Smith, who was on board, told the BBC: “There was a really loud bang towards the left rear of the plane and a whoosh noise – and all the air masks dropped.

“They said there was a kid in that row who his shirt was sucked off him and out of the plane and his mother was holding on to him to make sure he didn’t go with it.”

Diego Murillo said the gap was “as wide as a refrigerator”.

An audio clip picks up the moment the pilot asks air traffic control to divert.

“We are an emergency. We are depressurised, we do need to return back”, she said.

Footage on social media shows the hole after the window had blown out, and oxygen masks that had been released, dangling from the cabin ceiling. The seat next to window was unoccupied.

Photos of the plane appeared to show that a panel, which can be used for a rear mid-cabin exit door, had separated from the aircraft, said safety analysts.

Air safety expert Anthony Brickhouse, from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, said: “Whenever you have a rapid decompression such as this, it’s a major safety event.

“I can’t imagine what these passengers experienced. It would have been loud. The wind would be rushing through that cabin. It was a pretty violent situation, and definitely a scary situation.

“This is a very, very serious situation and it could have been a lot worse. If someone had been sitting in that seat, and they weren’t buckled in, it would have been a different situation.”

As a precautionary step, Alaska Airlines has grounded 65 Boeing 737 Max 9 planes.

It said: “While this type of occurrence is rare, our flight crew was trained and prepared to safely manage the situation.”

Its CEO Ben Minicucci said they should be returned to service only after maintenance and safety inspections, which he expected to be completed in the “next few days”.

Boeing said a “technical team stands ready to support the investigation”.

The National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said they were investigating the incident.

Passenger oxygen masks hang from the roof next to a missing window and a portion of a side wall of an Alaska Airlines Flight 1282, which had been bound for Ontario, California and suffered depressurization soon after departing, in Portland, Oregon, U.S., January 5, 2024 in this picture obtained from social media. Kyle Rinker via X/via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES.
All 171 passengers and six crew landed safety
(Photo: Instagram/@strawberrvy via Reuters)

Boeing said: “We are aware of the incident involving Alaska Airlines Flight 1282. We are working to gather more information and are in contact with our airline customer. A Boeing technical team stands ready to support the investigation.”

The new MAX 9 was delivered to Alaska Airlines in late October and certified in early November, according to FAA data.

Last week, Boeing had said it was urging airlines to inspect all 737 MAX airplanes for a possible loose bolt in the rudder control system.

The FAA also said it was closely monitoring Boeing 737 MAX inspections and would consider additional action if more loose or missing hardware was found.

The 737 MAX was grounded for 20 months worldwide after two fatal crashes in 2018 and 2019 linked to poorly designed cockpit software killed 346 people in Ethiopia and Indonesia.

Experts at Flightradar24 say the MAX 9 features a rear cabin door behind the wings that can be activated in dense seating configurations to meet evacuation requirements. However, those doors are permanently “plugged”, or deactivated, on Alaska Airlines jets.

Additional reporting from Reuters