The plane was able to make an emergency landing. Miraculously, there were only minor injuries, but passengers later described a loud explosion, followed by the deployment of oxygen masks in the cabin.
One passenger told the New York Times, “I thought I was going to die.”
The move forced the airline to cancel more than 100 flights on Saturday, The Seattle Times reported. The total represents about 13% of the airline’s scheduled flights on Saturday. More than 60 additional flights were delayed.
United Airlines, which has 78 737 Max 9 planes, pulled some out for immediate inspections, Bloomberg News reported.
The 737 Max family of planes has had a troubled history. Two flights in 2018 and 2019 crashed, killing hundreds. The entire global fleet was grounded for 20 months.
Flight 1282 had just taken off from Portland International Airport at 5:07 p.m. Friday, Pacific time, bound for Ontario, Calif., near Los Angeles. It landed back in Portland by 5:20 p.m.
The flight had 171 passengers and six crew members.
The incident occurred when the plane reached an altitude of about 16,000 feet, about three miles. Commercial airline flights typically cruise at about 30,000 feet.
Passengers said the missing section of the plane was an aft door on the left side.
Alaska’s seating configuration for the 737-9 is not dense enough to require the mid-aft cabin exit, according to a post by Flightradar24, which tracks airline activity, on X, formerly Twitter. So, the door is deactivated, and standard sidewall paneling is used on the interior. “To a passenger, it’s just like any other seat,” the post said.
The window seat was not occupied, with a teenage boy and his mother in the middle and aisle seats.
The boy’s shirt was torn off, and some passengers suggested he was nearly pulled out as winds howled in the cabin, according to the Oregonian newspaper. But his mother pulled him back in. The cabin crew moved mother and son elsewhere.
Reports said passengers were silent as the plane made its descent but erupted in applause when the plane touched down.
Afterward, passengers posted videos of the experience on X, formerly Twitter, and elsewhere. Many were booked on new flights.
Late Friday, Alaska (ALK) – Get Free Report announced it had grounded all 65 of the 737 Max 9 planes. Each will not return to service until it as been inspected, a process that the airline said might take a few days.
The affected planes, the Times said, represent about a fifth of Alaska’s fleet.
In the airline’s statement, Alaska CEO Ben Minicucci said the airline, the nation’s fifth largest, was cooperating with the National Transportation Safety Board, Boeing (BA) – Get Free Report, the plane’s manufacturer, and others in probing the cause.
“Safety is our foundational value and the most important thing we focus on every day,” Minicucci’s statement said.
Boeing released a statement on Friday saying it had a technical team ready to assist in the investigation. Given the plane’s history, more probes may be opened. On Saturday, India’s regulators ordered that country’s airlines to inspect their planes.
Alaska’s plane was new, having been certified in November, according to the F.A.A. registry of aircraft, the Times reported. It entered commercial service that month and has since logged 145 flights, according to Flightradar24, a light tracking site.
Alaska, based in Seattle, typically gets high grades for customer service. The stock closed up 3.1% at $37.95 on Friday before the incident.