How a ‘door plug’ could change FAA regulations and aid NTSB investigations

Kirsten Brueggemann

Associate Editor

Loyola University Chicago School of Law, JD 2025

On January 5, 2024, Alaska Airlines’ Flight 1282, a Boeing Model 737-9 MAX

from Portland, OR to Ontario, CA experienced a severe structural failure. Shortly after takeoff, a significant portion of the aircraft’s fuselage was torn away, resulting in a gaping hole in the plane, detached seat headrests, and even the forceful removal of a passenger’s shirt. There were no serious injuries. Following the incident, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) grounded certain Boeing 737-MAX jets. Concurrently, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) plans to launch a comprehensive investigation.

What happened on flight 1282? On flight 1282, the critical incident occurred when a “door plug” – a section of fuselage typically secured by stop fittings and bolts to prevent it from dislodging mid-flight – unexpectedly tore away just 10 minutes after takeoff. This led to a rapid depressurization of the cabin. Remarkably, the seats closest to the incident, 26A and 26B, were unoccupied at the time. Officials have recovered the door plug, which landed in a Portland teacher’s yard. The recovery of the door plug may help NTSB investigators to better understand what caused the incident. This particular aircraft had previously been flagged for issues with its auto pressurization system, indicated by the activation of fail lights on three separate occasions within a month. As a precaution, Alaska Airlines had limited the plane’s operations to routes that avoided extended over-water travel, such as flights to Hawaii. This restriction was intended to ensure the plane could swiftly return to a nearby airport in case any warning lights were triggered. Although maintenance was performed each time the fail lights activated, it is unclear if these pressurization issues were directly related to the fuselage failure. Notably, Alaska Airlines imposed these operational restrictions voluntarily, exceeding regulatory requirements, as part of their commitment to safety and ongoing maintenance protocols.

What are Boeing 737-9 MAX planes? Boeing’s 737-MAX planes are regularly advertised as Boeing’s best-selling aircraft, even after two high-profile crashes involving Boeing 737-MAX planes killed 346 passengers in 2018 and 2019. These crashes led to a 20-month grounding of the company’s best-selling jets, which cost Boeing more than $21 billion. A 250 page congressional report of the two crashes exposed a culture of concealment at Boeing and uncovered an eerily close relationship between Boeing and the FAA. This recent incident not only rekindles concerns from previous issues but also underscores the changes Boeing was expected to implement, potentially jeopardizing the company’s global economic standing.



Immediate aftermath Only Alaska Airlines and United Airlines operate Boeing 737 MAX-9 jets in the U.S. United is the largest operator of MAX-9s and has canceled more than 470 flights due to FAA mandated inspections. These inspections require the removal of two rows of seats and interior aircraft panels by five technicians. Both United Airlines and Alaska Airlines have since found instances of loose bolts relating to the door plugs on other MAX-9s.

One week after the incident involving flight 1282, the FAA announced new and significant actions to enhance its oversight of Boeing production and manufacturing processes. These steps encompass an extensive audit of the Boeing 737-MAX production line and its suppliers to ensure adherence to Boeing’s sanctioned quality procedures. Additionally, the FAA will intensify its monitoring of in-service events involving Boeing’s 737-MAX aircraft. The agency will also evaluate the safety risks associated with delegated authority and quality oversight, considering the possibility of transferring these responsibilities to independent, third-party organizations.

Potential future implications

This situation could lead to increased regulatory oversight in Boeing’s production and compliance departments. Currently, the FAA will not agree to a request from Boeing for an expansion in production or approving additional product lines for the 737 MAX until the quality control issues are unequivocally resolved.

From an airline perspective, this incident may prompt airlines to diversify their fleets. This strategy could mitigate risks associated with reliance on a single aircraft model, especially in scenarios where an entire model line is grounded for investigation. Airlines like Alaska and United have already experienced significant disruptions, with hundreds of daily flight cancellations due to the grounding.


Another proposed regulatory change, long advocated by some regulators, is the extension of cockpit voice recorder (CVR) logging duration. While U.S. regulations currently require a minimum of 2 hours of data for CVRs, for aircraft manufactured after 2021, the standard is 25 hours. Extending the recording time would provide NTSB investigators with more comprehensive data, including communications between pilots and air traffic controllers, without the urgency of retrieving the recorder within a limited timeframe. However, this proposal has been met with significant pushback from pilots and others in the industry who claim it infringes on the privacy rights of pilots and other flight crew members. Despite pushback, there have been several high-profile crashes and incidents of near misses that have renewed calls for further air-safety mechanisms to be put in place. The NTSB conducted 10 investigations since 2018 where the cockpit voice recording was overwritten.

In light of these concerns and the recent incident, the FAA has updated its stance on the Boeing 737 MAX jets affected by the grounding. The agency has announced that the grounded MAX-9s

are permitted to resume flights following a rigorous inspection and the necessary maintenance. This development marks a significant step in addressing the safety issues that have plagued the model and suggests a commitment to ensuring that the aircraft meet stringent safety standards before re-entering service.


The outcome of the NTSB’s investigation and Boeing’s ongoing cooperation with federal authorities, along with the FAA’s recent directive, will likely have a substantial impact on the federal regulatory framework for airlines in the U.S. and internationally.