January 5 proved to be a harrowing experience for the passengers aboard the Alaska Airlines-operated Boeing (BA.N) 737 MAX 9 jet that night. Following takeoff from Portland, Oregon, en route to Ontario, California, a piece of fuselage tore off the left side of the flight, forcing pilots to turn back and land safely with all 171 passengers and six crew on board.

The panel that tore off is a plug put in place on some MAX 9s instead of an additional emergency exit, but not every plane is manufactured in such a way. Passengers who were aboard that Southern California-bound flight described it as a “trip from hell” on Friday. “One of the guys that was there, his shirt was sucked out and his phone was sucked out,” said Jessica Montoya, who was seated about four rows from where a side panel blew out of the plane.

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What Transpired

As Alaska Air (ALK.N) Flight 1282 reached just over 16,000 feet on Friday, the panel tore off from the side of the jet, leaving a neat, refrigerator-sized, rectangular hole in the aircraft. The incident took place merely 10 minutes after departure. In a message to air traffic control, the flight crew urgently told operators it needed to make an emergency landing.

We just depressurized. We’re declaring an emergency. We do need to descend down to 10,000 (feet),” the message said. “And then I looked to my left and there’s this huge chunk, part of the airplane just missing,” said Elizabeth Le, who was seated about two rows from the missing side panel. “I just couldn’t believe my eyes like, there’s the gaping hole and you could see the city and the stars and everything just outside of the window.”

Around 5:30 p.m. Friday, the two pilots were able to land back at Portland International Airport safely. According to Jennifer Homendy, Chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, no serious injuries were reported by the 171 passengers or six crew members.

Homendy stated that the door plug was located near seats 26A and 26B, which were luckily empty. “On 26A and 25A, the headrests are gone,” the NTSB chair said. “On 26A, part of the seat, the back of the seat is gone. There are some clothing items in the area. We can see that the stop portions of the door are still intact on the door.”

Homendy said in a press conference Saturday, “We don’t often talk about psychological injury but I’m sure that occurred here so on behalf of the National Transportation Safety Board, I would like to extend our deepest sympathies to those who experienced what I imagine was truly terrifying.” As soon as they landed, the paramedics and the fire department were in, checking who was injured.

The Role Of The Panel

The 737 MAX 9, currently Boeing’s largest single-aisle plane, can seat up to 220 people. It includes an optional extra door to allow for the approved number of evacuation paths whenever carriers opt to install the maximum number of seats. Planes that do not opt for additional seating can replace that door with a panel, or plug.

Door plugs have been used to adapt aircraft and offer flexible layouts across the industry for years. Of the 200-plus 737 MAX 9 planes Boeing has delivered, 171 have this panel in place of a door. In the United States, the carriers United (UAL.O) and Alaska use this panel. United Airlines discovered loose bolts on door plugs during inspections of its grounded 737 Max 9 planes.

Alaska Air mid-air panel blowout

New Findings

It remains unclear what caused the door plug to break off. While the incident remains under investigation by federal authorities, some Boeing 737 Max 9 jetliners remain grounded until they are inspected. Alaska Airlines had actually placed restrictions on the Boeing plane involved in a dramatic mid-air blowout after pressurisation warnings in the days before Friday’s incident, investigators say.

The jet had been prevented from making long-haul flights over water, said Jennifer. The NTSB also announced that the missing section of the plane has now been found in the back garden of an Oregon teacher. Two cellphones, apparently belonging to passengers who had been on the plane, have also been found — one in a yard and another on the side of the road.

Netizens Panic

This dramatic incident caused a wave of panic across the world, especially in the minds of frequent flyers. It instilled a new fear among individuals. ‘What if a piece of the flight flies off mid-air while I’m in flight?’, ‘What if this happens when I fly next?’, ‘What if I was seated in the seat right next to the panel that flew off?’ Questions like these are troubling people around the world.

A user commented, “I didn’t need to read this a few days before flying…” Another wrote, “It used to be catch ✈️s, not feelings. But now I’m even scared to catch flights 😭” A third user wrote, “As someone who always takes a window seat : new fear unlocked” A netizen also compared this incident to something that’s straight out of a Final Destination movie.

A shocking and unprecedented event like this can shake anyone. The Alaska Air incident has instilled fear and panic in people, especially with regard to the safety of the flights. People are demanding that the appropriate authorities look into the manufacturers and conduct proper checks. This could have gone so wrong so fast, air companies need to learn to be more responsible for their passengers’ lives.