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What kind of plane are you flying on? How to check amid Boeing 737 Max 9 concerns

Near-disaster over Oregon causes mass grounding of jets, with safety investigation underway

Joe Sommerlad
Tuesday 09 January 2024 18:13 GMT
US officials order grounding of Boeing 737-9 Max jetliners after fuselage blowout

The US Federal Aviation Administration has grounded all Boeing 737 Max 9 jetliners currently in service with domestic airlines while an investigation is carried out into the mechanical fault that forced a flight heading to California to make an emergency landing in Portland, Oregon, on Friday 5 January.

Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 had 171 customers and six crew members on board when a door panel blew out, a terrifying incident that caused a large part of the fuselage to be ripped off and the cabin to depressurise at three miles above the surface, requiring immediate action from the pilot to avert tragedy.

Cabin crew and passengers alike have since been praised for keeping calm during the ordeal, with everyone putting on their oxgyen masks in good time as instructed and only minor injuries sustained as the jet made its dramatic return to Portland International Airport.

The National Transportation Safety Board is now investigating the episode and has already recovered part of the missing “mid-cabin door plug” from the back garden of a local school teacher.

Both Alaska Airlines and United Airlines have since said they have discovered loose bolts on same the Boeing models as they carry out safety inspections of their own in response to the near-disaster.

For its part, Boeing has said of the episode: “As operators conduct the required inspections, we are staying in close contact with them and will help address any and all findings.

“We are committed to ensuring every Boeing airplane meets design specifications and the highest safety and quality standards.

“We regret the impact this has had on our customers and their passengers.”

The situation has understandably left many people anxious about their own upcoming air travel and wondering how they might be able to determine in advance what kind of plane they are about to board.

Travel writer Stephen Au has written an extensive guide for the Upgraded Points website advising passengers on how they can use publicly-available information to make sure they are in the know before flying.

The writer stresses, as so many others have before him, that air travel is statistically the safest mode of travel available but advises that you can use sites like FlightRadar24, Seat Guru, FlightAware and Google Flights to determine beforehand precisely what model of plane has been assigned to your journey.

The gaping hole where the paneled-over door had been at the fuselage plug area of Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 (National Transportation Safety Board)

By simply entering a few basic details about your upcoming flight into their search engines – such as the name of the airline, the date and time it is due to take off and a flight number, if you have it – you can quickly find that information out.

If you are already at the gate and wish to know, Au advises you to look for a manufacturing name like “Airbus” or “Boeing” on the aircraft’s hull or a serial number beginning with “A2” or “A3” or a “7”.

Either of the first two indicates an Airbus model, the last implies a Boeing.

If you wish to know more about what models a given airline has within its fleet, you can use a site like Plane Spotters to find a complete list of aircraft currently in service with that company.

For instance – and as you would expect – the site reports that all 65 of Alaska Airlines’ Boeing 737 Max 9’s are currently parked.

It also reveals that those 65 Max 9’s have an average age of just 1.8 years, underlining their relative newness.

The site also lists the tail numbers of each craft, which Au advises you to note down if you wish to cross-reference a specific plane with the information held about it on Flight Radar.

By searching for a given tail number there, you can then pull up a complete record of that specific plane’s journey history, offering you an insight into exactly how old it is and what routes it has typically been deployed along.

Again, it is worth reiterating that the case of Flight 1282 is only newsworthy because it is so out-of-the-ordinary, so readers are advised not to worry excessively about upcoming journeys and instead to trust in the safety inspectors to get to the root of the problem and ensure there is no repeat of last week’s drama over Oregon.

As The Independent’s own travel expert Simon Calder writes of the Max 9 this week: “I have found the aircraft excellent to fly on, and I trust the judgment of the captain and his or her airline.”

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