February 23, 2024

As people were making their trips home from the holidays, disaster struck. On Jan. 5, an Alaska Airlines flight from Portland, Ore., to Ontario, Calif. had its 60-pound emergency exit door plug blow out at 16,000 feet in the air, according to ABC News.

Despite the emergency there were no serious injuries reported, but according to remarks made by the National Transportation Safety Board Chair, Jennifer Homendy, it was a stroke of luck that both seats next to the door were vacant that flight. Additionally, the incident occurred just 10 minutes before landing.

 “I imagine the accident could have been much worse if the flight had been at its cruising altitude of 35,000 feet, with people standing, walking or using the restroom. We could have ended up with something so much more tragic,” Homendy said during a news conference. 

In the aftermath, four passengers who were on board filed a lawsuit against Boeing, alleging that the plane was “unreasonably dangerous and defective.”

 The plane model, a Boeing 737 Max 9, had experienced two previous fatal crashes in 2018 and 2019. The FAA agreed to ground all its Boeing 737 Max 9 planes that had door plugs until its inspections were completed on Jan. 17. The FAA has since announced they are in the process of reviewing the data, with the newest findings as of Jan. 29  revealing the aircraft left the Boeing factory without critical bolts on the door. 

“Every passenger is afraid and they think they are the only ones afraid, which isn’t true. We pilots are afraid of something going wrong, too.”

Gregg Landolt, director of flight operations

Gregg Landolt, director of flight operations at CBU, explained how flight inspection protocol works.

“I used to manage major overhauls for airline aircraft, and I can tell you airliners are very complicated vehicles. For example, a major overhaul of a Boeing 757, similar to a Boeing 737, will have 1,000 inspection tasks and normally one will find another 500 tasks that have to be accomplished because of broken and leaking systems and parts,” Landolt explained. “The plug that blew out would have been an additional emergency exit door if the FAA had determined the need for that door, which it apparently didn’t.” 

Landolt concluded that despite the numerous inspections, there could have been preventative measures of double-checking.

“Pilots inspect the airplane before every flight, but the location of the plug that blew out is not in a normally accessible area, being up high, out of reach of a closer inspection. A more complicated inspection process could have prevented this incident, but these airplanes fly probably about four times per day and the inspection would have been impractical before this incident,” he said. 

Karlie Reed, sophomore aviation flight major, addressed the topic of safety. 

“There are plenty of false narratives surrounding the incident, but the big one is about how unsafe flying is. There are many risks involved, but  given [that] everyone made it back safe in the event of this emergency, it’s a true testament to how much training flight crews receive and how much they are prepared to tackle any situation,” Reed said. 

Landolt agreed that flight training of all kinds is extensive. 

“Training, training, training. AA is now paying for the loss of trust with reduced reservations and news articles which will cause passengers to go elsewhere,” Landolt said. “American airlines are the safest airlines in the world, thanks to the quality of training and level of maintenance they receive.”

As an aviation student, Reed pointed out some takeaways.

“One of the things we take away from this is making sure that all of our inspections are up to date, and not to get complacent with flying because so many mistakes can arise when we’re not careful and those mistakes can turn into emergencies,” Reed said. “Though we can never ensure everyone’s safety 100 percent of the time, I do think flying is a safe option that people shouldn’t be hesitant towards. Most people aren’t worried about getting in their car to drive, but there are plenty more fatal car accidents than aviation incidents.”

Landolt further emphasized this sentiment of not letting fear get in the way of action.

“Every passenger is afraid and they think they are the only ones afraid, which isn’t true. We pilots are afraid of something going wrong, too,” Landolt said. “The key is to use that fear to become better trained so you are ready if or when something happens.”

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