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Mid-air blowout on Alaska Airlines flight puts Boeing back under scrutiny

A dramatic incident involving a 737 Max 9 – flying from Portland to Ontario and operated by Alaska Airlines – occurred on Friday, 5 January, 2024, when a door plug fell off the side of the aircraft, causing a rapid decompression and leading to an emergency descent. Investigators say it's too early to determine the cause of the incident. There were 177 passengers and crew on board. 

Despite no injuries, the event led to safety checks grounding 171 similar planes. The incident has prompted the US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) to issue an Emergency Airworthiness Directive.

Fortunately the aircraft was only at 16,000 feet at the time of the incident – roughly half-way to its cruising altitude. If at peak altitude, the results could have been catastrophic. 

The aircraft, delivered in October 2023, faced warning lights in prior flights, prompting restrictions. The US National Transport Safety Board (NTSB) detailed the chaos on board and discussed missing cockpit voice recorder data. 

Meanwhile, a 27kg fuselage piece, crucial for understanding the incident, was recovered from a teacher’s garden, along with two mobile phones. Passenger accounts depicted the force of decompression, with disruptions in airline operations following the incident. This adds to the scrutiny faced by Boeing's 737 Max following previous safety concerns. European regulators also responded to the incident, impacting some airlines, but not all.

Previous Boeing 737 Max safety issues

The Boeing 737 Max 8 has already faced significant safety issues primarily due to flawed flight control software, implicated in two fatal crashes in late 2018 and early 2019. These incidents, in Indonesia and Ethiopia, led to the loss of 346 lives. The flawed software erroneously activated and pushed the planes into fatal nosedives, despite pilot intervention. 

This forced a global grounding of the 737 Max 8 fleet and intense scrutiny on Boeing's safety protocols and certification processes. The incidents prompted investigations, criminal charges against Boeing, regulatory changes, and ongoing modifications to the aircraft to address concerns and to try to restore confidence in the aircraft's safety.

Lawyers supporting families killed in Max 8 crash

Most of the British victims’ families are being represented by Irwin Mitchell’s specialist Aviation Law Team, including Sallie Booth and myself. We’re supporting the families in ongoing civil cases against Boeing in Illinois, USA and criminal court proceedings against Boeing in Texas, USA, together with US lawyers. 

In June last year, the coroner at the British Inquest into the deaths of 149 passengers and eight crew on board flight ET 302 on 10 March, 2019, ruled that they had been unlawfully killed.

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) in the UK has said that no Max 9 aircraft are registered in the UK.

737 Max Deferred Prosecution Agreement (DPA)

Boeing's Deferred Prosecution Agreement (DPA) stemmed from a settlement with the US Department of Justice (DOJ) over criminal charges related to the 737 Max crisis. In this agreement, Boeing admitted to misleading regulators and concealing information about the aircraft's safety. The DPA required Boeing to pay a monetary penalty, implement compliance measures, and cooperate fully with ongoing investigations. It allowed the DOJ to defer prosecution for three years, contingent upon Boeing's adherence to the terms laid out in the agreement. 

This three-year period expired in the last few days. Questions therefore remain about how much the safety culture at Boeing has improved, given this most recent event. The charges against Boeing brought by the US Department of Justice – which focus largely on defrauding the FAA – are technically still pending. 

Crucial that Boeing Max 9 blow-out investigated

It's extremely unusual to have a structural failure like this on a new aircraft, so it is crucial that this incident is thoroughly investigated by the relevant authorities. The move by the authorities to look at this incident in more detail is welcome and many will be paying close attention to the outcome.

More information about Irwin Mitchell’s expertise in supporting families affected by the Ethiopian Airlines tragedy and other air crashes can be found at our dedicated aviation section.