Investigators search for missing door plug from Alaska Airlines 737 MAX accident

The aviation industry was once again in the spotlight on Friday when an Alaska Airlines jet experienced a decompression incident mid-flight. As investigators work to determine the cause of the incident, they are seeking the public’s help in locating a missing piece of the aircraft’s fuselage.

The incident occurred on a Boeing 737 MAX 9 aircraft, which has been under scrutiny since two fatal crashes involving the same model in 2018 and 2019. However, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has emphasized that their investigation is focused on the individual plane involved in this incident, rather than the entire fleet subtype.

During a media briefing, Jennifer Homendy, the NTSB chair, revealed that a plug used to seal an unused space for an extra emergency exit was missing from the aircraft. She stated that the missing part was likely somewhere in the Cedar Hills neighborhood, just west of Portland. Homendy pleaded with the public to contact local law enforcement or email the NTSB if they come across the missing plug.

In addition to locating the missing part, investigators are also requesting pictures and videos from inside the aircraft. These materials can be emailed to and will assist in the investigation.

Photos circulating on social media show a clean hole where the door plug had been, suggesting that the piece may have blown away. However, investigators will closely examine the fuselage’s structure for any further damage.

Prior to the flight, there were reports of intermittent warning lights indicating pressure loss issues on the aircraft. The airline addressed and resolved these incidents before the flight took place. The NTSB has stressed that the investigation is still in its preliminary stages, and no conclusions can be drawn at this time.

Following the incident, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued an Emergency Airworthiness Directive, ordering the grounding of some 737 MAX 9 aircraft pending inspection. The directive applies to approximately 171 aircraft that were outside of routine maintenance inspection windows. Inspections will take four to eight hours per aircraft and may be performed at outstations to expedite the process.

Alaska Airlines initially announced that it would ground its fleet of 65 Boeing 737 MAX 9 aircraft. However, the airline continued to operate flights with a dozen of these jets on Saturday morning. Later in the day, following the FAA’s order, the airline reversed course and grounded the entire subfleet. United, the other major U.S. carrier with the 737 MAX 9 in service, also grounded its fleet of 79 aircraft of the same type.

The groundings resulted in the cancellation of numerous flights. Alaska Airlines canceled approximately 160 flights, while United canceled about 60. The airlines are now working with the FAA to determine the necessary steps before these aircraft can return to service.

As the investigation and inspections continue, flight cancellations are expected to persist. By Sunday morning, United had canceled 231 flights, while Alaska had canceled 163. It is unclear how many of these cancellations were directly related to the MAX 9 grounding versus other factors such as winter storms or other issues.

Fortunately, no one was seriously injured during the decompression incident. However, NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy acknowledged the psychological impact on those involved and expressed her sympathies to those who experienced a terrifying ordeal.

The investigation into this incident will shed light on the cause of the decompression and ensure the safety of future flights. As the aviation industry strives for continuous improvement, incidents like this serve as reminders of the importance of thorough inspections and diligent maintenance practices.

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