Flight emergencies have turned some fliers into armchair investigators

Social media is full of complaints from airline passengers - dirty seats, barefoot neighbors, reclining chairs, waiting for hours on the tarmac. But sometimes, they take on a more nervous tone.

What is that strange noise? Is that smoke? Why is someone putting tape on the plane? Are screws missing on that wing?

While a “see something, say something” approach to terror threats has been the norm for decades, travelers often raise the alarm for anything they find out of the ordinary. That’s especially true in the wake of the Alaska Airlines incident on Jan. 5, when a door plug blew off a Boeing 737 Max 9.

Though all 177 passengers and crew survived, the incident has renewed concerns about the safety of 737 Max aircraft. The airliner was grounded in 2019 for nearly two years after two fatal Max 8 crashes in Ethiopia and Indonesia that killed 346 people.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the Alaska incident and has focused on whether key bolts designed to hold the door in place were properly installed. And while the independent agency has yet to release its preliminary findings, the Federal Aviation Administration has already launched an audit of Boeing 737 Max production line and increased scrutiny of the plane maker.

But all the talk of loose or missing bolts has made any potential visible issue with an airplane top of mind for many fliers. And there are more tools than ever for passengers to monitor their flights, track the type of plane they’re flying, notice when things go awry and even listen to conversations between pilots and air traffic controllers - as well as ways to spread that information widely.

“A lot of angst out there in the populace,” said Kathleen Bangs, a former commercial airline pilot and spokesperson for the flight tracking site FlightAware. She said the site is seeing an interest in people searching types of aircraft, and Max 9 planes in particular. Travel booking site Kayak said usage of its 737 Max filter on flight searches increased 15-fold after the Alaska Airlines incident.


A week and a half after the Alaska ordeal, a Virgin Atlantic flight from Manchester to New York City was canceled after a British passenger noticed missing screws. Traveler Phil Hardy, 41, told Kennedy News and Media agency that he took photos and alerted a flight attendant after spotting the issue during the safety briefing, all the while thinking of the Alaska Airlines incident.

“This was definitely at the forefront of my mind, and I’ve watched enough crash investigations to know it doesn’t take a lot to bring down a plane and I started to get a bit more worried,” he said.

Despite assurances from the airline that there was no problem with the wing, Hardy said his partner, Magdalena Bobusia, was starting to panic. The couple was able to head to New York for their vacation the next morning after their flight was canceled, leaving at 4:30 a.m. for the first leg.

“The thought of the screws was at the forefront of my mind but because it was pitch black on the flight, I couldn’t see anything, which was probably for the best,” he said.

The airline and manufacturer, Airbus, said the four missing fastener tops had no impact on the structural integrity of the wing or the plane’s ability to operate safely. The screws were four out of 119 on a secondary structure panel that is used to improve the plane’s aerodynamic performance.

Virgin Atlantic said the flight was canceled “to provide time for precautionary additional engineering maintenance checks, which allowed our team the maximum time to complete their inspections.”

Still, many fliers shuddered. “Not i have to examine the plane myself as a passenger so i can feel safe,” one person wrote on X.

Satire sites have had a field day. The Shovel, an Australian site, published a headline joking that screwdrivers were allowed on Boeing flights “To Allow Passengers To Help With Maintenance.” Conservative site The Babylon Bee wrote a fake story in which flight attendants asked passengers to make sure the plane had both wings, and give “the cabin a good once-over to make sure there were not missing bolts or engines hanging precariously by a couple of flimsy wires.”

[Alaska Airlines 737 Max blowout raises new questions about FAA’s oversight of Boeing]

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Flight disasters are still rare

“It’s natural and understandable why passengers would be concerned,” said Hassan Shahidi, the president and CEO of the Flight Safety Foundation, a nonprofit that provides safety guidance to the aviation industry.

“But we today in the United States have a very safe air transportation system,” he continued. “We have thousands of flights that takeoff and land every day without any incidents.”

The last fatal crash of a commercial airliner in the United States was in 2009, a Continental Connection flight operated by Colgan Air that killed 50 near Buffalo. The fatal accident rate in the United States was 0.006 for every 100,000 flight hours from 2001-2017, according to NTSB data. There were 53,081 flight hours per day in the United States during the period.

Asked what travelers should do to stay safe on flights, Shahidi said listening to crew instructions and wearing your seat belt are the best ways to ensure safety.

Bangs, the former pilot, said passengers should keep their windows open when taking off and landing to better see if there are flames or a safe escape in case of an emergency, though such incidents are rare. That was important when passengers had to flee a Japan Airlines jet after it collided with another plane and burst into flames at the beginning of the year. She said it’s also important to count the number of rows to the nearest exit, both in front of and behind your seat.

Still, Bangs said she sympathizes with watchful passengers. Many years ago, she asked a flight attendant to go to the cockpit because she didn’t see the flaps on the rear of the wing down as the plane was taxiing for takeoff - which she said could lead to a crash.

“As a pilot, I’m a control freak myself,” she said.


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‘If I’m willing to fly this plane, I’m willing to put my family on it’

Planes are checked for issues before every flight. That includes a visual check, or walkaround, by one of the pilots as well as system checks mandated by the numerous checklists that govern flying a commercial airliner.

Any potential maintenance issue must either be either fixed or, if it is not critical, can be deferred for a limited period. Deferred maintenance events occur on more than half of flights, said several pilots for major airlines who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly. And, on longer flights over water, like to Hawaii or Europe, planes cannot have any deferred maintenance items.

“If I’m willing to fly this plane, I’m willing to put my family on it,” one pilot at a major airline said he tells any passenger who voices safety concerns. Asked how often they encounter a deferred maintenance item, they estimated about half of the time.

One common question pilots are asked is when passengers spot what looks like duct tape on a plane’s wing. This is actually “speed tape,” which is a special adhesive designed and certified to be used safely on planes in-flight. While it may not look good, the pilots said, it does not mean the plane is unsafe.

Bangs said sensors monitor the health of a plane’s system and produce “thousands of digital bits of information.”

“There’s so much more detailed digital oversight of everything that’s happening,” she said.

Charles Horning, an associate professor in the aviation maintenance science department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, said a member of the flight crew will look for obvious damage or problems with the tires. Horning, who worked for Delta doing line maintenance and training for more than 18 years, said those checks are in addition to more detailed regular inspections.


Planes can function safely with some equipment out of order or damaged; details on what is allowed are spelled out in a minimum equipment list and configuration deviation list. But still, Horning said, it makes sense for a flight crew or maintenance workers to pay attention - even if it just means doing a quick visual inspection - if a passenger does flag something that concerns them.

“If anything, it puts the passenger at ease and they’re not going on a flight for umpteen hours and thinking part of the wing might come falling off,” he said.

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Avoiding the Max 9 altogether

Daniel Rodriguez was on his way to explore Medellín, Colombia, last month. He was flying on Copa Airlines and took the time to check the type of plane he was flying on to avoid any disruption from the grounding of most Boeing 737 Max 9 jets, which lasted about three weeks.

Everything was on schedule until he showed up at the Copa desk at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. There he found out that his flight to Panama City, where he would transfer to another flight to Medellín, was canceled because the airline needed his plane elsewhere due to the Max 9 grounding.

“Even though I wasn’t going to take a Max 9, what I should have thought more of was whether that issue was going to roll downstream and affect other flights,” Rodriguez said. He ended up calling the airline and rebooking his trip for March.

[Max 9s are back in the Alaska Airlines fleet. Here’s what that means for travelers.]

Since that trip, Rodriguez, who works at a health care organization and travels about every three weeks, said he regularly checks what kind of plane he’s flying on and whether the airline is affected by the Boeing Max 9 issues. His reason is simple: If his flight might be affected, he doesn’t want to get stranded somewhere without his laptop and miss work.

While popular flight tracking website Flightradar24 has not seen an uptick in visits to the fleet pages of airlines that operate affected 737 Max aircraft, according to spokesperson Ian Petchenik, many travelers on social media echoed Rodriguez’s concerns. They said they were checking what type of plane they were on more frequently to avoid potential disruptions to their trips if the aircraft was out of service.

But some had bigger worries.

“I do everything I can to avoid flying on the 737-Max airplanes,” one person wrote on X, but said it was hard to avoid completely.

“I literally check every flight I take to make sure it’s not on a 737-MAX,” wrote another, reposting a video of the Alaska incident. “I’ve canceled flights for this reason before and seeing this makes me feel less like a paranoid idiot.”