How dangerous it is to travel on Boeing 737 Max 9 jets after door blowout

Boeing has again come under intense scrutiny over the safety of its planes after an aircraft’s door plug was blown out mid-air on Friday – and found in the back garden of a suburban home in Portland, Oregon.

The corporation’s Boeing 737 series has faced questions over the past few years, particularly following two fatal crashes in 2018 and 2019.

The latest setback for Boeing’s top-selling 737 Max fleet occurred on Friday when a cabin panel blowout forced Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 to make an emergency landing, causing a slew of flight cancellations as jets of the same Max 9 model were grounded.

One aviation analyst told i that the incident represented a setback for the company at a time when “passenger confidence in the Max is already fragile” following previous crashes, and will “add to the questions over the quality and safety culture” at factories in the US.

What happened on Friday?

The Alaska Airlines plane took off from Portland and was heading to Ontario, California, when it was forced into an emergency landing because the plug door on its left side blew off at 16,000 feet, according to FlightRadar24.

“We’d like to get down,” the pilot told air traffic control, according to a recording posted on, which provides live broadcasts from across the world. “We are declaring an emergency.”

We do need to come down to 10,000,” the pilot added, referring to the initial staging altitude for such emergencies, below which breathing is considered possible for healthy people without extra oxygen.

The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on Saturday ordered the temporary grounding of 171 Boeing Max 9 jets installed with the same panel, which weighs about 60 pounds (27kg) and covers an optional exit door mainly used by low-cost airlines.

It said the issue could affect other aircraft of the same design, and ordered inspections before further flight of the aircraft. Boeing said it would support the FAA’s decision.

The US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which has opened an investigation into the incident, said late on Sunday the “key missing component” to help identify what went wrong, namely the missing door, had been found by a Portland school teacher.

He was identified only as “Bob”, a resident in the Cedar Hills neighbourhood, NTSB chair Jennifer Homendy said, saying she was “very relieved” it had been found.

Ms Homendy described how the force from the loss of the plug door was strong enough to blow open the cockpit door during flight in what must have been a “terrifying event” for the 171 passengers and six crew aboard.

Were there warnings?

Ms Homendy said the auto pressurisation fail light had illuminated on the same Alaska Airlines aircraft on 7 December, 3 and 4 January, but it was unclear if there was any connection between those incidents and the accident.

Alaska Airlines made a decision after the warnings to restrict the aircraft from making long flights over water to Hawaii so that it could return quickly to an airport if needed, Ms Homendy said.

The Seattle-based carrier said earlier in a response to questions about the warning lights that aircraft pressurisation system write-ups were typical in commercial aviation operations with large planes.

The airline said “in every case, the write up was fully evaluated and resolved per approved maintenance procedures and in full compliance with all applicable FAA regulations”.

Alaska Airlines added it has an internal policy to restrict aircraft with multiple maintenance write-ups on some systems from long flights over water that was not required by the FAA.

Have Boeings crashed before?

The accident has put Boeing back under scrutiny as it awaits certification of its smaller Max 7 as well as the larger Max 10, introduced to compete with a key Airbus model.

In 2019, global authorities subjected all Max planes to a wider grounding that lasted 20 months after crashes in Ethiopia and Indonesia killed a total of 346 people.

In those accidents, a stall-prevention system known as MCAS, triggered by faulty data from a single airflow sensor, repeatedly and forcefully shoved down the jet’s nose as the pilots struggled to regain control.

The latest incident, however, appears to be a structural issue.

Aviation analyst Alex Macheras told i that the Boeing 737 Max has “suffered an incredibly troubled history”.

He said the Alaska Airlines incident could have had “incredibly serious consequences for passengers”, had anyone been seated near the panel that was torn away, or not had their seatbelt tightly fastened.

Mr Macheras said the situation was another setback for the company at a time when “passenger confidence in the Max is already fragile following a period when the aircraft became a household name amid two fatal crashes and a worldwide grounding”.

He added: “To make matters worse for Boeing, the jet itself involved in the Alaska Airlines incident was factory fresh – less than three months old, which will add to the questions over the quality and safety culture at Boeing factories across the US, which Boeing insist has improved over recent years.”

The Independent‘s travel correspondent, Simon Calder, notes that passengers travelling with Ryanair, which uses Boeing 737s, are “most unlikely” to encounter similar issues as its aircrafts will have real emergency exits rather than a “deactivated exit”.

A real exit is needed if flying with more than the normal limit of 189 passengers, Mr Calder explained.

Are the UK or EU affected?

The UK Civil Aviation Authority said on Saturday that there are no UK-registered planes affected. It will require any 737 Max 9 operators entering its airspace to comply with the FAA directive to ground jets installed with the same panel.

The European Union Aviation Safety Agency adopted the FAA directive, but noted no EU member state airlines operate an aircraft with the affected configuration.

What have airlines said?


The airline grounded its entire fleet of 65 Max 9s early on Saturday, but later returned 18 to service following earlier maintenance checks on the FAA’s order.

The carrier said it had cancelled 170 flights on Sunday with 60 more flights being cancelled on Monday following the FAA order.

After an emergency landing forced one of its planes on the ground on early Saturday, the airline halted flights by 18 additional Max 9 planes on Sunday after an FAA directive.


The only other US airline that operates the jets on Saturday said it temporarily suspended service on all 737 Max 9 aircraft to run inspections required by the FAA.

Earlier, it had said that of its 79 Max 9 aeroplanes, about 33 had already been inspected as required by the aviation regulator.

United cancelled 230 flights on Sunday, or 8 per cent of scheduled departures.


The Panamanian carrier said on Saturday it had temporarily grounded 21 737 Max 9 aircraft and that it “expects to return these aircraft safely and reliably to the flight schedule within the next 24 hours”. Some delays and cancellations are expected.

As of end of September, the carrier had 26 737 Max 9s in its fleet, but operates them in two different configurations.


The Fijian flag carrier said on Monday it was unaffected by the FAA grounding of Boeing 737 Max 9 aircraft.


The airline said on Sunday that its three Boeing 737 Max 9 planes were not affected. It operates the aircraft with a deactivated mid-aft exit door configuration, which is not affected by the directive.


The airline said on Sunday it has withdrawn five aircraft from service for inspection. The planes will be grounded at the first airport they land at.

‘Safety our top priority’

Boeing said in its latest statement: “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.

“In addition, a Boeing technical team is supporting the NTSB’s investigation into the 5 January accident. We will remain in close contact with our regulator and customers.”

Additional reporting by agencies