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Tue, Feb 27, 2007

Alaska Airlines Plane Makes Unscheduled Stop After Access Hatch Left Open

Ground Crews Failed To Close External Power Hatch

Ground workers at Zihuatanejo Airport in Ixtapa, Mexico have some explaining to do, after an Alaska Airlines flight bound for Los Angeles made an unscheduled landing in Puerta Vallarta Saturday, due to an unexplained vibration.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reports once the Boeing 737-900 (file photo of type shown above) landed, crews discovered workers in Ixtapa had failed to close the small hatch covering the external power hookups in the aircraft's nose.

Alaska Airlines spokesman Paul McElroy said the plane's pilots thought the door was the cause of the problem, and made the decision to land out of concern the six-inch-square door might separate from the plane, and be ingested into an engine.

Aric Weiker, one of 173 passengers onboard the flight, said people knew something was up when the plane "made a sharp turn and headed in a direction that was not Los Angeles."

"He (the pilot) said the reason we were landing was if the door flies off it could cause problems," Weiker added.

The maintenance door covers connections for power and communications hookups for when the plane is parked at a gate. On the 737-900, it is located below the copilot's side windscreen.

The plane arrived in Los Angeles at 9:25 pm local time Saturday night, about 180 minutes later than originally scheduled. Weiker said passengers were kept on the ground in Puerto Vallarta while ground crews inspected the plane for signs of possible damage.

The incident is another black mark against Menzies Aviation, the private firm hired by Alaska Airlines in 2005 to take over ground and maintenance operations at most of its gates, including those at Zihuatanejo.

In a highly publicized December 2005 incident, a ground worker at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport accidentally punched a small dent in the fuselage of a parked MD-80 -- and failed to report the accident. Once the plane took off, that small crease grew into a larger one, leading to a hole in the plane's fuselage that caused a loss of pressurization in the passenger cabin.

The plane was able to return to SeaTac safely... but in the days that followed, four other depressurization incidents on Alaska planes led the airline to conduct a safety review, and inspect its entire fleet of aircraft. The airline found no links between those incidents.

In January 2006, a parked aircraft was damaged by errant ramp workers at Sea-Tac. Two weeks after the decompression incident, another aircraft made an emergency landing at SeaTac due to another unexplained vibration. Crews discovered a maintenance worker had failed to close a landing gear door after replacing a taxi light.

FMI: www.alaskaairlines.com, www.menziesaviation.com

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