Photo: Stephen Brashear/Getty Images
The boom came just five minutes into the flight, as Alaska Airlines flight 1282 was climbing out from Portland, Oregon en route to Ontario, California. At 5:13 p.m. local time, as the 737 MAX was ascending through 16,000 feet, part of the wall on the left side of the passenger cabin suddenly blew out, taking with it the padding of an unoccupied window seat and ripping the shirt off a young man sitting in the adjacent middle seat. As the pressure in the cabin dropped, air masks dropped. The roar of the slipstream was so deafening that passengers could not hear what flight attendants were saying over the intercom; the stars in the night sky and lights on the ground below could clearly be seen through the gaping hole. “The first thing I thought was, ‘I’m going to die,’”one passenger told the New York Times. The flight crew declared an emergency and returned immediately to Portland International Airport, where it touched down 14 minutes later. A flight attendant reported minor injuries, and the teenager who lost his shirt had red, irritated skin, but otherwise no one was hurt during the incident, and Alaska Airlines was able to book the passengers onward to their destinations on other flights.
While there is still much to learn about the details of the incident, what we know so far is enough to cast another troubling light on the 737 MAX, an aircraft that has already garnered what is inarguably the worst reputation that any new plane has earned in decades, and is likely to raise new questions about the safety culture at Boeing and the competence of its leadership.
It is unusual, but not totally unknown, for chunks of a plane to come flying off in midair. Once a plane climbs above 10,000 feet it is essentially a balloon, with its air-tight fuselage holding in an internal atmosphere that is at much higher pressure than the outside air. In planes that have been landing and taking off for many years, tiny cracks in the metal can grow gradually larger, until one day the structure gives way catastrophically. Perhaps the most famous example of this phenomen took place in 1988, when an 18-foot section of roof ripped off an Aloha Airlines 737 as it was flying at 24,000 feet between Hilo and Honolulu in Hawaii. A flight attendant standing underneath the section was sucked out and her body was never recovered. Eight passengers suffered serious injuries but the pilots were able to land the plane without further incident. In that case, the plane was nearly 20 years old and had been flown for more than twice the number of takeoff/landing cycles that it had been designed for.
The plane in Friday’s incident, by contrast was nearly new, having been certified just two months prior. The model, a Boeing 737 MAX 9, is a stretched version of the MAX 8 that is most famous as the aircraft that crashed in Indonesia in 2018 and then in Ethiopia in 2019, killing everyone aboard. While the MAX 8 is 129 feet long and carries 178 passengers, the MAX 9 is 138 feet long and carries 193 people. The aircraft’s basic design includes an emergency exit behind the wing that customers can choose to replace with what looks like a normal section of wall. To fill the gap where the door would be, Boeing installs a plug. It was apparently such a plug that blew out during Friday’s decompression. Pictures published on social media showed what appeared to be clean breaks around the perimeter of the missing section.
“Can we even call those doors ‘plugs’ if they are able to pop out under pressure?” quipped aviation journalist Seth Miller on Twitter. “Might need a new term for them after this incident.”
In the wake of the incident, Alaska announced that it was grounding its entire fleet of 65 MAX 9 aircraft until each aircraft had undergone “full maintenance and safety inspections,” a process expected to take several days. The airline had previously been scheduled to operate more than 150 flights per day on these aircraft. Just hours after Alaska announced it would be grounding its MAX 9s, one of them took off at 7:13 a.m. from Fort Lauderdale en route to Seattle — it’s hard to imagine that they were able to conduct a very comprehensive inspection in that time frame. Other operators with significant fleets of 737 MAX 9 aircraft include United, with 79 in service, and Aeromexico, with 18. Later Saturday, the Federal Aviation Administration ordered all U.S. airlines to temporarily ground their 737 MAX 9 planes until they could be inspected.
In the wake of the Indonesia and Ethiopia fatal crashes, 737 MAX planes were grounded around the world, and there was considerable doubt as to whether the public would ever accept them. After a two-year review process, the FAA recertified the MAX in late 2020, and the airline industry quickly overcame any qualms it might have had. Post covid, the aviation industry was booming, and new jets were needed. Today there more than 1000 737 MAX jets in operation, 221 of them the MAX 9 variant.
Friday’s incident raised new questions about the wisdom of continuing to rely on an aircraft that has been so notoriously dogged by problems. Producing a plane whose pieces blow out explosively even when brand new is clearly a failure of engineering, but failures of engineering are a product of management failures. In 2021 Boeing reached a $2.5 billion settlement with the Justice Department to settle fraud conspiracy charges over the design of the 737 MAX. In 2022 it agreed to pay $200 million to settle charges it misled investors about the MAX.
And it continues to struggle to bring its planned line of 737 MAX variants to market. Just this past Friday, the Seattle Times reported that Boeing was trying to get a safety waiver from the FAA for the 737 MAX 7, a smaller version, so that it could be certified to fly even though its engine de-icing system could pose a deadly danger in flight.
For all its problems though, the 737 MAX remains a commercial success: Boeing has more than 4,000 orders outstanding, 137 of them for the MAX-9.
This post has been updated.