The US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is asking for the public’s assistance in the investigation of the door plug blow-out of an Alaska Airlines’ Boeing 737 Max 9 over Portland, Oregon.
At a media conference late on 6 January, NTSB chair Jennifer Homendy said that the agency is still looking for pieces of the fuselage that were blown off the aircraft during the event on 5 January, which the agency has upgraded from an “incident” to an “accident”.
“We need the public’s help,” Homendy says. “We believe from looking at radar data, that the door is around Barnes Road near I-217 and the Cedar Hills neighbourhood. If you find that, please, please contact local law enforcement.”
“It would be a help to us so incredibly if you find that,” she adds.
The NTSB’s so-called “go team” arrived on site in Portland around 15:12 local time on 6 January, and first looked at the damaged aircraft, she says. The team then conducted organisational meetings to discuss how the investigation will proceed in the coming days and weeks. Included on the team are technical experts from the Federal Aviation Administration, airframer Boeing, Alaska Airlines, pilot union Air Line Pilots Association, International, and the Association of Flight Attendants.
The damaged airframe, N704AL, which was operating as flight 1282 from Portland to Ontario, California, had 171 passengers on board along with two flight deck crew and four flight attendants. Homendy says it was delivered to Alaska Airlines on 11 November.
The in-flight failure on the evening of 5 January caused a rapid depressurisation and left a gaping hole in the left side of the jet. The pilots declared an emergency and quickly landed the aircraft back in Portland safely.
“Fortunately all passengers de-planed, we are not aware of any serious injuries, we are aware of minor injuries,” she says. “It was a terrifying event. We don’t talk about psychological injuries, but I am sure that occurred here.”
“It was a very chaotic scene, very loud,” Homendy adds.
The investigators will look at all aspects of the aircraft’s maintenance records, as well as the aircraft’s pressurisation system, the door, the components around the door, the hinges and the stop fittings around the door, she says. The aircraft’s flight recorders will be sent to the safety regulator’s lab on 7 January.
‘WILL NOT SPECULATE’
Since the investigation is still in its early stages, Homendy says she ”will not speculate” on the causes of the accident, or the safety of the rest of the Max 9 fleet.
“We are very, very fortunate here that this didn’t end up in something more tragic,” Homendy says. ”No one was seated in [seats] 26A and B where that door plug is. The aircraft was at around 16,000ft and only 10min out from the airport when the door blew. Fortunately they were not at cruise altitude at 30,000ft or 35,000ft.”
“We could have ended up with something more tragic.”
Homendy says that the headrests on seats 25A and 26A are missing, there are “clothing items” in the area of those seats and “we can see that the stop portion of the door [is] still intact”.
“There is an identical intact door plug on the other side [of the aircraft]. We are going to be able to look at the right [side] one which is fully intact and see what that one looks like and compare it.”
The FAA meantime, earlier in the day, issued an emergency airworthiness directive, which requires 171 of the type to undergo inspections before carrying passengers again.
United Airlines, Aeromexico, Alaska Airlines and Panama’s Copa Airlines have all said they have taken 737 Max 9s out of their in-service fleets to conduct these inspections. That said, there is no indication that the is a systemic problem across all fleets.
“Our investigation is focused on this particular aircraft,” she says. “We can’t make any broad statements about the fleet but I am very encouraged that the FAA took action to temporarily ground this particular aircraft for inspection and for addressing for any potential concerns through these inspections.”
”We are not focused on the fleet, but nothing is out [of discussion], and we will go where the investigation takes us.”
She welcomed the FAA’s rapid action in grounding the aircraft.
“The FAA has been very communicative and very supportive,” she says. “I am very encouraged that they took swift and decisive action to ensure continued safety in our airspace.”
“We have the safest aviation system in the world. It is incredibly safe. We are the global gold standard for safety around the world, but we have to maintain that standard,” Homendy says.
Airlines globally operate 215 Max 9s, according to Cirium data. United has the largest fleet, with 79 of the jets in service. Other sizeable operators include Copa, with 29 Max 9s, and Aeromexico, with a 19-strong fleet, data shows.
European safety regulators have yet to follow the US FAA in taking action against the Boeing 737 Max 9. However, relatively few Max 9s operate in Europe. Carriers using the type include Turkish Airlines, which configures its jets with 169 seats, and Icelandair which has Max 9s with 178 seats.