How a Boeing 737 door opened mid-flight

An expert breaks down what happened

Boeing 737 Max 9 airplanes are grounded after an Alaskan Airlines plane depressurized on January 5, 2023.

We spoke with Ella Atkins, an aviation expert at Virginia Tech about the incident.

Atkins said with airplanes, though highly unlikely, the emergency exits are a risk for an opportunity for incidents like this to happen. She said with the way the main compartment is built, any malfunctions at those points raise the risk.

“If you imagined what it would be like to take something that had a little hole in it but you plugged it, if you imagine where it is going to fail, just from a commonsense perspective, that plug is what’s going to fail,” said Ella Atkins, the department head of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering at Virginia Tech.

The pressurized cabin then adds to the stress.

“That means you are actually pressing outward from inside the aircraft, to outside the aircraft,” said Atkins. “Any door in a pressure vessel is subject to failure before the rest of the vessel.”

She also said while this has raised concerns, it also has been an example of how safe airlines have become.

“The rest of the aircraft actually proved that it was designed in a way it was supposed to which is that if the door is flown off, it doesn’t break apart,” Atkins said.

While airplanes are inspected between flights, something as subtle as this can be missed.

“That particular door is not one that you would normally open and close between each fight,” Atkins said.

She said planes have sensors similar to your car that alert you when the door is ajar, but it is possible the issue was not significant enough to trip the plane’s sensor.

About the Author

Thomas grew up right here in Roanoke and is a graduate of Salem High School and Virginia Tech.

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