Alaska Airlines plane loses window mid-air, entire Boeing 737-9 fleet grounded

An Alaska Airlines plane heading to Southern California was forced to make an emergency landing after the plane's window blew out.

The FAA has ordered the immediate grounding of Boeing 737-9 Max jetliners a day after a window and piece of fuselage blew out of an Alaska Airlines plane mid-flight and forced an emergency landing in Portland, Oregon.

The Federal Aviation Administration made the announcement on social media on Saturday.

"The FAA will order the temporary grounding of certain Boeing 737-9 Max aircraft operated by U.S. airlines or in U.S. territory," the agency said Saturday. "The Emergency Airworthiness Directive that will be issued shortly will require operators to inspect aircraft before further flight that do not meet the inspection cycles specified in the EAD. The required inspections will take around four to eight hours per aircraft.

"The EAD will affect approximately 171 airplanes worldwide."

FOX 11 obtained dramatic images of the windowless plane.

The Boeing 737-9 plane took off from Portland Friday afternoon with 174 passengers and six crew members on board and climbed to 16,000 feet before turning around, flight data showed. A passenger on the plane told FOX 11 he heard a "really loud bang" just as the plane reached cruising altitude, prompting the oxygen masks to drop. 

Another passenger said a kid's shirt was sucked off of his back and out of the plane, and other people on the plane had their phones and belongings fly out when the window blew.

One of the pilots declared an emergency and asked for clearance to descend to 10,000 feet (3 kilometers), the altitude where the air would have enough oxygen to breathe safely.

Videos posted by passengers online showed a gaping hole where the window had been and passengers wearing their masks. They applauded when the plane landed safely about 13 minutes after the window blew out. Firefighters then came down the aisle, asking passengers to remain in their seats as they treated the injured.

No one was hurt in the flight.

"Luckily the failure did not happen at a higher altitude, or with passengers not buckled in" says Aviation expert Robert Ditchey. A former Navy pilot and one of the original founders of America West, Ditchey has provided expert witness in numerous aviation cases. He is not involved with this investigation, but does point out that the 900 series of the Boeing 737 planes is a new version of the popular plane, and the failure spot is one where the Max 9 features an option of having an exit door or a window.

In the case of this particular plane, Alaska opted for the window, which is known in the industry as a "plug in." Literally, the section is attached and secured to the fuselage. Looking at images of the damaged plane, the opening appears to be the size of and shape of a door, even though there was a window there before the whole thing sheared off.

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The option is offered on the new Max 9’s, but it’s been used before on other planes successfully, when changing a passenger plane into a freight plane, for example. While there have been no reported problems with the conversion on the newer 737 models, it’s something that investigators will look at closely. Boeing issued a statement saying safety is their top priority and "we deeply regret the impact this event has had on our customers and their passengers".

The FAA order affects about 171 planes from not only Alaska Airlines, but United Airlines as well, which operates the largest number, about 79. In a statement, United says they are in the process of inspecting all of them. The Alaska flight doors were installed by a company called Spirit AeroSystems, confirmed company spokesperson Forrest Gossett, who adds they are cooperating with the investigation.

"This is a big failure, but it could have been much worse," said Ditchey. He credited the crew’s handling and reminded passengers that things can happen, and seat belts do make a difference.

Below is a statement released by Alaska Airlines:

"Flight Attendants are trained for emergencies and we work every flight for aviation safety first and foremost. Last night, Flight Attendants working Alaska Flight 1282 performed our jobs with skill and professionalism to care for passengers after what has been described as an explosive decompression at the window exit.

"The Flight Attendants and Pilots of Alaska 1282 ensured all passengers and crew arrived safely back on the ground. We commend the entire crew.

"Alaska Airlines has announced the temporary grounding of the Boeing 737-9 MAX aircraft fleet. Our Union strongly believes this decision is a prudent and necessary step toward ensuring the safety of all crew and passengers. We will closely monitor the safety inspection process to ensure that aircraft are not returned to service until they are deemed safe for all.

"Our union is supporting the crew. We will provide more information as it becomes available, making sure to support all efforts to review the incident and ensure its lessons are applied to all aspects of aviation safety. AFA EAP is always available to support any Flight Attendant at 800-424-2406."

Representatives for American Airlines and Southwest Airlines said their companies do not use 737-9 planes and their operations would not be affected.

Boeing said it was aware of the incident and is working to gather more information to support the investigation.