Alaska Airlines door plug blow out: What’s known about the Boeing emergency

The emergency landing of an Alaska Airlines flight on Friday night after a portion of the plane’s main body, or fuselage, blew out has caused upset among travelers

None of the 171 passengers or six crew aboard were seriously injured, but the terrifying encounter has put air passengers, airlines and federal authorities on edge. 

Here is what’s known so far about the Alaska Airlines’ Boeing blowout:

The flight: Alaska Airlines 1282

A photo sent to FOX 12 Oregon (KPTV) from a passenger on Alaska Airlines flight 1282 shows the blown-out door plug. (Photo: Used with permission)

A photo sent to FOX 12 Oregon (KPTV) from a passenger on Alaska Airlines flight 1282 shows the blown-out door plug. (Photo: Used with permission)

The blowout happened on an Alaska Airlines flight on Jan. 5, 2024, about seven minutes after takeoff. The plane was about 3 miles above Oregon and made a safe emergency landing 13 minutes later.

National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy said the two seats next to the part that tore off were unoccupied. The headrests were gone on seats 26A and 25A and 26A was missing part of its seatback. Insulation from the walls was also pulled, she said.

The cockpit door also flew open and banged into a lavatory door. The force ripped the headset off the co-pilot and the captain lost part of her headset. 

One passenger said a child’s shirt was sucked off him and out of the plane, but Homendy couldn’t confirm that.

Videos posted by passengers online showed a gaping hole where the paneled-over exit had been and passengers wearing oxygen masks, which were said to have dropped immediately. 

RELATED: FAA temporarily grounds Boeing 737-9 planes after panel blows out mid-flight

The plane: Boeing 737 Max 9

The plane that suffered the blowout was a Boeing 737 Max 9, and about 171 of the planes worldwide were immediately grounded by federal officials on Saturday until they can be inspected. 

The Max is the newest version of Boeing’s 737, a twin-engine, single-aisle plane that debuted in the late 1960s and has been updated many times. The 737 has long been a workhorse for airlines on U.S. domestic routes.

The aircraft involved was certified about two months ago, according to online FAA records, and had been on 145 flights since entering commercial service Nov. 11, said FlightRadar24, another tracking service. The flight from Portland was the aircraft’s third of the day.

It had also recently been restricted from long flights over water, specifically to Hawaii, Homendy said Sunday, after a pressurization warning light appeared on three different flights. It’s unclear if the pressurization light is related to the blowout. 

The only two U.S. passenger airlines that fly Max 9s are Alaska and United. 

The incident has also renewed questions about the safety of Boeing's Max aircraft, which has been plagued by other issues. 

RELATED: Boeing under scrutiny again after plane blowout

The equipment: What is an airplane door plug?

An Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 Max-9 aircraft grounded at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) in Seattle, Washington, US, on Saturday, Jan. 6, 2024. Photographer: David Ryder/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The hole in the side of the Alaska Airlines jet opened up where Boeing fits a "plug" to cover an emergency exit that is not being used.

Some foreign carriers cram more seats into their Max 9s, so they must have an additional emergency exit to accommodate a greater number of passengers. But since Alaska Airlines and United Airlines configure fewer than 180 seats into their Max 9s, they don’t need two mid-cabin exits - hence the plug. 

The door plugs are assembled into the body of the 737s at Spirit AeroSystems factory in Wichita, Kansas.

On Monday, United said it had found loose bolts and other "installation issues" on door plugs they'd been inspecting on its grounded planes. It wasn't known yet how many issues were discovered. 

The blown-off door plug from the Alaska flight was found Sunday in a backyard. The piece of equipment is 26 by 48 inches and weighs 63 pounds. 

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Investigators examine the fallen Alaska Airlines 737 door plug. (NTSB photo)

Two cell phones that were blown out of the plane were also found.

RELATED: Man finds iPhone 'perfectly intact' that likely fell 16,000 feet from Alaska Airlines flight

The response

In addition to the FAA’s temporary grounding of all Max 9 planes that use the door plug, the National Transportation Safety Board has begun an investigation that is likely to last months. 

After Alaska Airlines and United grounded their entire fleets of 65 Max 9s for inspections and maintenance, both the airlines reported separately that they found loose parts in the panels — or door plugs — of some of the jets. 

"Since we began preliminary inspections on Saturday, we have found instances that appear to relate to installation issues in the door plug — for example, bolts that needed additional tightening," Chicago-based United said.

Alaska said that as it began examining its Max 9s, "Initial reports from our technicians indicate some loose hardware was visible on some aircraft."

Alaska and United have canceled hundreds of flights since the weekend because of their grounded planes.

Boeing, based in Arlington, Virginia, previously issued a statement following the Alaska Airlines blowout, saying "we deeply regret the impact this event has had on our customers and their passengers." 

But the findings of investigators and the airlines have ratcheted up pressure on Boeing to address concerns, with the aircraft maker calling an online meeting for all employees on Tuesday to discuss safety.

Shares of Boeing fell 8% and Spirit AeroSystems, which installs the door plugs on Max jets, dropped 11% on Monday.

This story was reported from Detroit. The Associated Press contributed.