Anchorage-bound jet makes emergency landing in Juneau

Richard Mauer

Alaska Airlines flight 731 nearly reached Alaska airspace Sunday night on its way from Seattle to Anchorage when one of its two engines malfunctioned and shut down, forcing the crew to declare an emergency and divert to Juneau.

Airline spokesman Paul McElroy said none of the 160 passengers were injured and all found seats Monday on existing flights to Anchorage despite the holiday travel rush.

The Boeing 737-900, one of the more modern planes in the Alaska Airlines fleet, lost power in its right engine as the plane was flying at 34,000 feet south of Prince Rupert in British Columbia. Clint Johnson, Alaska region chief for the National Transportation Board, said the engine failure was "contained," meaning no parts came flying out.

The crew descended and attempted to restart the engine, but couldn't, Johnson said.

"So they elected to declare an emergency, dump fuel, and elected to land at Juneau," Johnson said.

Ketchikan was the nearest jetport but Juneau wasn't much farther, he said. McElroy said Juneau was preferable because the airline had mechanics there.

Passenger Joe Szopa, a television editor from Hermosa Beach, Calif., returning to Alaska to visit family, was dozing off in the front part of the coach section when a sudden quiet got his attenion.

"All of a sudden I heard the sound of the engine completely go silent," he said. "It didn't sound right."

But the crew didn't say anything and he fell back asleep, only to be awakened by the cabin lights coming on way too early and the flight attendants quickly collecting the rental movie players. The captain said on the public address system there was a "slight malfunction" with an engine and they were diverting.

Passengers were nervous and the crew seemed tense, but no one panicked, Szopa said. "I think they handled it well," he said.

It wasn't till they were safely on the ground, that the captain said one engine had failed and he had been unable to restart it twice, Szopa said.

The two-engine 737 is certified to operate on a single engine, Johnson said.

"Everything went good here," he said. "We don't look only at what went wrong, but we also look at what went right, and the crew did what they were supposed to do, followed the procedures."

McElroy said Monday afternoon that mechanics in Juneau had not yet determined why the engine died.

Engine failures on commercial jetliners are rare. McElroy said this was the first he reported since he went to work at Alaska Airlines seven years ago.

In 2002, an Alaska Airlines 737-200 lost power in an engine shortly after takeoff from Barrow and returned safely. In 1997, an Alaska Airlines MD-80 flying to Anchorage returned safely to Seattle when one of its two engines surged, then cut out.

Flight 731 originated Sunday in Houston at 5:35 p.m. Central time. It reached the gate in Seattle at 8:06 p.m. Pacific time, 11 minutes early.

The leg to Anchorage left the gate on time, 9:10 p.m. But flight logs reported by the website FlightAware said the plane didn't take off until 9:44 p.m., an unusually long delay for SeaTac. McElroy said he didn't know why the plane was on the ground so long.

The plane was scheduled to arrive in Anchorage at 11:52 p.m. It reached cruising altitude of 34,000 feet and a speed of 495 mph 20 minutes after takeoff, according to the logs.

But at 9:48 p.m. Alaska time, the plane signaled Vancouver, B.C., flight control that it was about 100 miles southeast of Prince Rupert and starting to descend and reduce speed. It passed Ketchikan at 390 mph around 10:19 p.m., flying at 20,700 feet above Prince of Wales Island. It landed in Juneau at 11:04 and arrived at the gate at 11:15.



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