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After midair blowout, passengers want Boeing and Alaska Air to ‘notice’ them

“Boeing and Alaska Airlines are in trouble, and they are circling the wagons at this point”

By Lauren Rosenblatt, The Seattle Times
Published: April 7, 2024, 6:02am

Cuong Tran was about to doze off as his Alaska Airlines flight lifted off from Portland when he felt he was losing control of his body.

Tran was seated in row 27, one row behind the piece of fuselage that blew off the Boeing 737 MAX 9 aircraft late on Jan. 5. He felt his feet pulled toward the open hole in the side of Flight 1282 and watched as his shoes, and then his socks, flew out of the aircraft. His seat belt strained to keep his body in place.

“I was trying my hardest just to pull myself up but it didn’t matter what I did,” Tran said in a recent interview. “I was sitting there for so many seconds [and] didn’t really have any way to prevent anything from happening.”

The flight was “one of the most terrifying experiences I went through in my life.”

That night, Tran was traveling home to Upland, California, after a trip to Oregon to celebrate the New Year. He was on the flight with three friends — one who was seated next to him and another two sitting at the front of the plane with their three children.

Now, all four friends are suing the companies they contend had a hand in creating a hole in the side of the plane, including Alaska Airlines, Boeing and Boeing’s supplier Spirit AeroSystems, as well as 10 unknown defendants identified as John Does.

Boeing and Alaska are facing at least three other lawsuits related to the January incident — with more expected. The lawsuit filed on behalf of Tran and his friends is the first to name Spirit as a defendant and to include John Does.

The John Does are placeholders in case more defendants are identified later, said a spokesperson for Wisner Baum, the law firm representing the four friends. Those defendants could be individuals or businesses that either worked on the aircraft or on the Alaska flight where the incident occurred.

The companies declined to comment for this story. Boeing and Alaska have denied similar allegations in other lawsuits and separately asked a judge to dismiss the claims against them in response to one of the earliest cases filed against them in January.

Alaska pointed the blame back to Boeing, writing in court records that, “alleged injuries or damages” were caused by “entities over whom Alaska Airlines has no control and for whom Alaska Airlines carries no responsibility, including but not limited to … The Boeing Company and/or … Spirit AeroSystems.”

Boeing originally tried to pass on the blame as well, writing in its first response that it was not responsible if its aircraft was “improperly maintained” or “misused.” The company later amended its answer to remove that paragraph.

‘Circling the wagons’

In each lawsuit, attorneys representing the passengers have argued Boeing failed to ensure the aircraft was built properly and safe to fly. Attorneys accused the company of negligence and said it prioritized speed in manufacturing over safety.

Alaska, attorneys alleged, violated its contract as a “common carrier” to provide the highest duty of care to its passengers. Alaska was aware of Boeing’s policies regarding its quality control and failed to properly inspect the aircraft, the attorneys argued.

Each attorney has pointed to Alaska’s decision to restrict the aircraft from flying over large bodies of water after a series of three depressurization lights came on, indicating there may be a problem with the plane.

The company said that restriction was made to ensure it would be close to a maintenance repair station if needed, and was “consistent with industry-standard practice.”

Jennifer Homendy, chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the incident, said early on in the investigation that the depressurization lights were likely not connected to the fuselage blow out and that Alaska’s decision made sense to her. Because the MAX cabin pressurization is a triple-redundant system, the warning lights indicate the primary controller had gone down but the secondary system kicked in, so there was no significant impact.

Alaska was thrown back in the spotlight weeks later when the company revealed it had scheduled a maintenance check for that specific aircraft, as a result of the warning lights, for the night of Jan. 5, just hours before the fuselage blow out.

“Boeing and Alaska Airlines are in trouble, and they are circling the wagons at this point,” said Daniel Laurence, an attorney with the Seattle-based law firm Stritmatter Kessler Koehler Moore, which is representing roughly 40 passengers in a proposed class action lawsuit.

“Our effort is going to be to try to use every tool in our procedural tool belt to create transparency and get to the truth of what actually happened here,” Laurence said. “That’s what our clients want.”

To do so, Laurence said his firm will “be asking a lot of pointed questions” to Boeing and Alaska, and will ask Boeing executives to testify, including CEO Dave Calhoun, former CEO of Boeing commercial Airplanes Stan Deal and Chief Operating Officer Stephanie Pope.

Last month, Boeing announced Deal would leave the company immediately, with Pope taking over as head of the commercial airplanes unit. Calhoun will also step down at the end of the year.

Mark Lindqiust, a Tacoma attorney who is representing more than 20 passengers from Flight 1282, said his firm plans to ask for flight reports for the aircraft, following allegations that some passengers on earlier flights heard a whistling sound coming from the panel that later blew off.

His firm will also ask for more details on the scheduled maintenance check that evening, and who made the decision to continue flying the plane with passengers on board.

Boeing and Alaska on notice

It’s unusual to pursue class-action lawsuits in aviation litigation on behalf of passengers because each individual’s experience is so subjective, particularly based on where they were on the plane. Laurence said his firm did so to prevent any discrepancies in what passengers may be awarded based on a particular judge.

“The defect here was so obvious,” the firm decided to try their hand at a ruling that would impact all the passengers on board, Laurence said.

Of the 171 passengers on board, he estimated 70 to 80 have lawyers.

Jonathan Johnson, a Georgia-based attorney who is representing three of those passengers, chose to sue Boeing and Alaska in Oregon, rather than Washington, because state law there allows him to ask for punitive damages.

Punitive damages are meant to punish the defendants — in this case, Boeing and Alaska — with a financial hit, while compensatory damages are meant to make the plaintiffs — in this case, the passengers — whole.

Johnson has asked a district judge in Oregon for damages totaling at least $1 billion.

“We have alleged that my clients are entitled to be compensated for the trauma they went through — but in addition we think Boeing should have to pay a large amount,” Johnson said. “To get Boeing to change its conduct, it’s going to take a number on that scale.”

Johnson outlined more than a dozen prior safety incidents involving Boeing aircraft in his lawsuit. “In terms of corporate misconduct and the history of the 737 … it’s not just this one-off event with Boeing. It’s a pattern,” he said.

Boeing declined to comment on this lawsuit, but executives have said the company will increase inspections at its facilities and Spirit’s Wichita, Kansas factory. In March, Deal told employees Boeing would “not hesitate in stopping a production line or keeping an airplane in position,” if it found something went wrong.

Erin Applebaum, an attorney with Kreindler and Kreindler, who is representing passengers on board the flight, as well as the families of victims of two fatal crashes involving Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft from 2018 and 2019, said most of these cases will likely settle before going to trial.

Those settlements will probably include clauses that Boeing and Alaska are not admitting liability, and confidentiality agreements that prevent the plaintiffs and defendants from disclosing the financial terms of the settlements.

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For Tran, the passenger who was seated near the gaping hole in the side of Alaska Flight 1282, filing a lawsuit is one way to regain control.

Because there was so much noise immediately after the blow out, Tran said he wasn’t able to communicate with the friend sitting right next to him. Both were worried about what was happening elsewhere on the plane, particularly near their friends and three children.

Needing to get home, Tran got on another plane shortly after Flight 1282 returned to Portland. Now, he said he hopes to avoid flying.

“I just feel like there’s a lot of negligence going on with all these companies in charge of people’s lives,” Tran said. “I just want them to notice.”