FBI probes mid-air blowout on Alaska Airlines flight

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The FBI is investigating a January Alaska Airlines flight, where a door plug on the aircraft, a Boeing 737 Max 9, blew out mid-air.

A criminal probe was confirmed by the FBI in a letter sent to those aboard the plane, identifying them as “victims”.

None of the 177 passengers and crew were killed, but some were injured.

A group has since sued Alaska Airlines for “serious emotional distress, fear and anxiety”.

The FBI letters, sent to passengers on 19 March by a victim specialist within the FBI’s Seattle Division, said that the criminal investigation may be “lengthy”.

They added that updates on the probe’s progress could not be shared at this time.

The letters confirm early media reports that the Department of Justice (DOJ) had launched a criminal investigation into the Boeing jetliner blowout, which occurred on a 5 January flight from Portland, Oregon to Ontario, California.

Sources familiar with the investigation told the BBC’s US news partner CBS in early March that the probe will look into whether Boeing violated an agreement it entered with the Justice Department in 2021, following two crashes involving its 737 Max aircraft.

More than 300 people died in the two crashes of Boeing’s Max planes in 2018 and 2019.

Boeing has not commented on the ongoing criminal probe.

In a statement shared with media after news of the DOJ investigation emerged, Alaska Airlines said a federal probe is normal “in an event like this”.

“We are fully cooperating and do not believe we are a target of the investigation,” said the airline.

The Alaska Airlines flight had to make an emergency landing in Portland after an outer section of the plane fell off shortly after take-off.

The loss of that section caused an uncontrolled decompression inside the aircraft, where passengers say they had to “hold on for dear life”.

One passenger, Cuong Tran, told the BBC that his seat belt saved him as his phone, socks and shoes were ripped off 16,000ft above ground.

Mr Tran, who was sitting next to his friend one row behind the section which blew out, said he suffered injuries including a laceration to his leg.

National Transportation Safety Board agents with the recovered door plug

Image source, NTSB

Images shared online – and later by the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) – showed a wide hole in the side of the Boeing 737-9 Max aircraft, with oxygen masks dangling from the ceiling.

The missing section of the plane was later found in the back garden of a Portland school teacher’s home.

In a preliminary investigation US regulators found four critical bolts – meant to hold the so-called door plug in place – were missing from the flight.

Shortly after the incident, officials from the NTSB said that Boeing had also placed restrictions on the plane involved in the incident days before it took off.

The jet had been prevented from making long-haul flights over water, said NTSB chief Jennifer Homendy, after pilots reported pressurisation warning lights on three previous flights made on that specific plane.

The decision to restrict lengthy flights over water was so that the plane “could return very quickly to an airport” in the event the warnings happened again, she said.

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