A door blowout aboard an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737-9 MAX was not how many expected the first week of 2024 to unfold. However, following the incident, inspections and investigations have uncovered further production flaws at Boeing, raising concerns about quality control for the major manufacturer, alongside safety.
Since the Alaska Airlines incident, 171 Boeing 737-9 MAX planes were grounded for almost three weeks. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) launched an investigation into production practices at the planemaker, Alaska Airlines increased their oversight into Boeing, key suppliers were under fire, and Boeing, in firefighting mode, said it had “implemented immediate actions to strengthen quality”.
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Boeing and Alaska Airlines are now staring at lawsuits while Boeing’s customers are contemplating a business plan without some of its planes.
On board the flight
Inside AS1282, the Alaska Airlines flight that experienced the blowout, the overarching theme for the 171 passengers and six crew was chaos, Jennifer L Homendy, the chair of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), told journalists in a news conference.
At the front of the aircraft, the cockpit door blew open following the rapid depressurisation. This was something the pilots weren’t aware could take place. Additionally, the pilots struggled to communicate clearly with air traffic controllers who attempted to get the plane safely to an airport.
Obtaining a full understanding of the cockpit events remains complicated because the cockpit voice recorder overwrote itself before retrieval, as NTSB Chair Jennifer L Homendy confirmed.
Further down the cabin, passengers reported that when the door blew out, the “bang was loud enough to blast through noise-cancelling Beats headphones and Apple AirPods and harm passengers’ ears”, as per a lawsuit filed by four passengers against Boeing and seen by Al Jazeera. The blowout caused “fear, distress, anxiety, trauma, physical pain and other injuries”, the lawsuit said.
Similar to the pilots, the cabin crew struggled to communicate with each other and grasp the unfolding situation, including the damage, per The Washington Post.
Ultimately, the rising stress levels inside the cabin resulted in passengers believing the circumstances unfolding “was a prelude to the plane’s destruction and their own likely death”, as per the lawsuit.
In a now unavailable video, TikTok user @imsocorny, who was seated towards the front in flight AS1282, described the blowout as a “loud bang and jolt, and then a whoosh of air”.
This was followed by a commotion towards the back of the plane where the blowout occurred. But as the oxygen masks dropped and terrified passengers grabbed to put them on obstructing their view, it wasn’t clear what was going on. This left passengers believing that they could begin nosediving at any second.
The door plug that blew out was removed from the aircraft for repair and then improperly reinstalled, The Seattle Times reported, citing a whistleblower.
Four passengers filed a lawsuit against Boeing and Alaska Airlines on January 16, following the incident. These plaintiffs seek to “recover damages caused by personal injuries while onboard Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 on January 5, 2024”, their lawyer Mark Lindquist, told Al Jazeera.
Lindquist has previously represented dozens of victim families following Boeing 737 MAX 8 crashes in 2018 and 2019, when planes went down in Indonesia and Ethiopia, respectively.
At the time those families and Lindquist hoped “Boeing learned their lesson from the MAX 8 crashes and improved their quality control”. However, Lindquist says that the newest case into the US manufacturer “demonstrates Boeing still has significant and dangerous quality control issues that need to be fixed”.
The Alaska Airlines door blowout was “an extreme, life-threatening incident”, and it blind luck that nobody died, said Lindquist.
Fourteen more passengers have contacted Lindquist asking for representation since he filed the case on behalf of the four passengers. Lindquist added that he will likely file an amended complaint with new clients and new information at some point.
Lindquist expects more legal firms to get involved in legal action against Boeing and Alaska Airlines with the aim of holding them accountable and “make sure this doesn’t happen again to anyone”, he said.
Boeing didn’t respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.
Impact on Boeing customers
Alaska Airlines and United Airlines are the leading airlines impacted by the 737-9 MAX grounding. To make matters worse, the pair are the two largest operators of the variant.
Despite this, their experiences with the grounding differed. Alaska has 65 737-9 MAX planes, compared to the 79 at United Airlines. However, Alaska’s overall percentage of cancelled flights was higher as the 737-9 MAX represents 20 percent of their total fleet. For United Airlines, the 737-9 MAX represents only 8 percent based on fleet data from planespotters.net.
In a filing, United said that it’ll post an adjusted loss between 35 cents and 85 cents a share for the first quarter of 2024. These results follow the 737 MAX grounding. Meanwhile, Alaska Airlines expects the ordeal to cost $150m.
Scott Hamilton, founder and managing director of Leeham Company, an aviation consulting company, said, “65 airplanes represent something like 20 percent of its fleet. You can’t remove 20 percent of the capacity for long before moving into a loss”.
These frustrations over groundings have resulted in executives from the two airlines reconsidering their future choice of aircraft.
Alaska Airlines CEO Ben Minicucci told NBC News that while it still planned to order the largest variant in the MAX series, the 737-10, decisions on fleet mix will only come once it was certified. A timeline for the 737-10s approval is unclear.
United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby similarly told CNBC that they were the “biggest customer of Boeing in the world”, and they “need Boeing to succeed”. However, they’ll now be building a plan that doesn’t have the 737-10 in it for a considerable period.
Internally, the best-case scenario at United is a delay of five or more years for the 737-10. To cope with these delays at United, it “probably means we’ll change the order book up, there are alternative means of airplanes instead of MAX 10s for the next few years, it also means we won’t grow quite as fast”, per their CEO.
An opportunity for Airbus?
As frustrations grow toward Boeing, the question is if industry competitor Airbus can capitalise on that and capture some of that business.
It’s not as simple as that, warned Hamilton, and on the contrary, Airbus will struggle to capitalise because of its success.
“The A320 line is sold out to 2030, and sales extend beyond 2030. Airbus could not provide new aeroplanes in any great quantity even if airlines came knocking today,” Hamilton said.
So no matter how frustrated these airlines may be over quality issues, they may have no real choice but to stick with Boeing.
“The airlines basically have to stick with Boeing whether they want to or not if they want 737-size airplanes this decade,” said Hamilton.
Richard Aboulafia, managing director of AeroDynamic Advisory, said the Airbus backlog and Boeing’s status means that despite the quality of aircraft, those seeking to place aircraft orders are, to at least some degree, stuck with Boeing. He added: “It’s possible that Boeing management simply doesn’t care. They might have reasoned that while Airbus is quickly gaining ground, that’s beyond their time horizon.”
However, the latest problems are greatly endangering the cynical calculation predicted by management, he said.