Alaska Airlines Incident Exposes Another Scary Vulnerability

Cockpit door flew open when plane rapidly depressurized
By Evann Gastaldo,  Newser Staff
Posted Jan 10, 2024 3:30 AM CST
Alaska Airlines Incident Exposes Another Scary Vulnerability
This photo released by the National Transportation Safety Board shows a gaping hole where the paneled-over door had been at the fuselage plug area of Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 on Sunday, Jan. 7, 2024, in Portland, Ore.   (National Transportation Safety Board via AP)

Following the September 11, 2001, attacks, aircraft manufacturers and federal regulators worked together to secure airplane cockpits so bad actors would not be able to gain access to the controls. An exception was put in place, however, for the rare case of a rapid depressurization; in that case, it was determined, the risk of a hijacker trying to access the cockpit would be low enough that the cockpit doors should automatically open so air could flow between the cockpit and the cabin. But the flight crew aboard the Boeing 737 MAX 9 being operated by Alaska Airlines Friday when a gaping hole opened up in the side of the plane didn't know that would happen, and was surprised when the cockpit door flew open amid the chaos inside the cabin, the Wall Street Journal reports.

National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy explained at a press conference Tuesday, per Politico, "The cockpit doors flew open immediately and at this point the flight attendant in the forward portion of the aircraft was standing. The cockpit door flew open, hit the lavatory door. The lavatory door got stuck. She did attempt to shut the door three times, it eventually shut." The fact that the cockpit door would open in such an event was not mentioned in the Boeing manual for the plane, per the WSJ, and experts in the fields of aviation safety and regulation who spoke to the paper say even they didn't know about the feature, which they view as a potential security issue, especially now that it's been exposed.

"They'll have to go back and revisit the whole security piece of this," a former regional director of the Transportation Security Administration says. "Once you put it out in the public domain and the bad guys now know that's a potential area they can exploit, then I think you have to take some additional steps." Meanwhile, the fact that the information was not in the manual echoed pilot criticisms of a lack of training regarding flight control systems on Boeing's 737 MAX 8 that were implicated in two deadly crashes. "It's another round of Boeing not telling pilots about an airplane detail, which erodes the trust relationship and more importantly it narrows the safety margin," says a rep for a pilots' union. Also Tuesday, Boeing's CEO acknowledged the company's "mistake" in the Alaska Airlines incident, per CNN, though where that mistake took place is not yet clear. (More Boeing stories.)

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