‘Heightened alert status’: Experts talk about aviation safety and Boeing after door fiasco

Boeing is under scrutiny after a door plug on an Alaska Airlines flight fell off on Jan. 5 over Portland, Oregon. Associated Press file

Amid the one-two punch of school holidays and Easter traffic, O’Hare International Airport teemed with travelers over spring break, with an estimated 7% increase over 2023.

But the surge in the public’s appetite for travel comes as aviation giant Boeing faces tough questions about safety.

The Federal Aviation Administration is scrutinizing Boeing after a door plug on a 737-9 MAX jetliner blew out Jan. 5 on Alaska Airlines Flight 1282. The jet landed safely in Portland, Oregon.

Should air travelers be worried? Here are some experts’ takeaways.

“When I approach a 737 and determine that I’m flying a MAX, I get on the airplane with a heightened alert status,” said Dennis Tajer, Allied Pilots Association spokesman and an American Airlines pilot.

“I’m trained to deal with the issues that may be before me. But I also know that this aircraft is currently flying with FAA airworthiness directives for conditions that need to be fixed. It doesn’t make it unsafe — but it just puts another layer of distraction and another level of, ‘I’ve got to watch this,’ that I haven’t had on Boeing airplanes before,” the Arlington Heights resident said.

Boeing CFO Brian West said recently the company continues “to be fully committed to transparency and accountability with our regulators.”

“The FAA is deeply involved and undertaking a tougher audit than anything we've ever been through before,” he said. “And as they do their important work, we're undertaking comprehensive actions, so that we can move forward to strengthen quality and build confidence.”

The Jan. 5 flight scare introduced the term “door plug” to many.

Don’t conflate door plugs with the typical doors passengers use to board or exit planes, Lewis University Aviation Associate Dean and Professor R. Eric Jones explained.

A door plug is an option on 737-9 MAX planes that replaces an emergency exit door if airlines want to remove seats. The plug is hinged at the bottom so it can be opened for maintenance and inspections, and it’s secured with ‘four very well-engineered bolts” holding it in place, he said.

Key questions include: “Was the door designed correctly?” Jones noted. And, “during the construction of the door … did someone forget or mis-install some of the hardware to secure this door?”

A NTSB preliminary report found it appeared bolts were missing before the door detached.

“In my experience, the Boeing doors that I worked on for a majority of my career have been incredibly robust. There’s no reason for me to believe that this designed door, if it was installed correctly and maintained correctly, that it wouldn’t maintain pressure throughout all phases of (its) life,” said Jones, a former lead Southwest Airlines aviation maintenance technician.

The FBI is investigating and informed some passengers they could be victims of a crime, The Associated Press reported. All this comes after fatal Boeing MAX international crashes in 2018 and 2019.

Despite the controversy, about 2.9 million passengers will rush through O’Hare and Midway airports between March 21 and Monday, April 1.

“Travelers have no problem flying on Boeing jets, but airlines are weary of manufacturing glitches that are requiring lengthy repairs,” DePaul University Transportation Professor Joseph Schwieterman noted.

The FAA has halted production of new MAX 737s and its auditors found multiple instances where Boeing “allegedly failed to comply with manufacturing quality control requirements.”

“The safety of the flying public will continue to inform our decision-making,” Administrator Michael Whitaker told Congress in February.

U.S. Air Force veteran Tajer flew Boeing jets in Desert Storm. “Those airplanes saved my life from the enemy outside the airplane. Now I feel like the enemy is within,” he said. “We’re going to change that.”

The NTSB is also probing the mishap. However, Chairwoman Jennifer Homendy noted on social media recently that “our aviation system is the safest in the world. The riskiest part of your travel day is driving.”

Gridlock alert

Expect lane closures on Route 83 near Downers Grove as IDOT repairs the bridge over the BNSF tracks. Work wraps up this fall.

One more thing

The Illinois Alliance for Clean Transportation hosts its annual Green Drives Conference and Expo on May 9 in Alsip. For info, go to

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