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Wed, Dec 28, 2005

Ground Crew Mishap Leads To Hole In Fuselage, Emergency Landing

All Safe In Monday Alaska Airlines Incident

There are a lot of questions in the aftermath of an incident aboard an Alaska Airlines flight heading to Burbank Monday.

Before the MD-80 (file photo of type, below) left the gate in Seattle, a baggage handler, contracted by the airport, bumped his loading truck into the jet -- causing a 4-inch-long crease in the thin aluminum skin of the aircraft's forward fuselage. The problem went unnoticed -- and unreported -- by ground crews, and the airliner took off uneventfully.

As the plane climbed through 26,000 feet, however, a loud explosion was heard -- causing a loss of cabin pressure, a burning smell in the cabin and several "absolutely terrifying" moments, in the words of one passenger.

"Basically your ears popped, there's a really loud bang and there was a lot of white noise. It was like somebody turned on a leaf blower in your ear," said passenger Jeremy Hermanns to the Seattle Times.

Oxygen masks dropped, and the pilot initiated an emergency descent to allow passengers to breathe easier. The crew then guided the stricken airliner back to Seattle, where it made a safe emergency landing.

As the 140 passengers onboard applauded the flight crew, those on the ground discovered a one-foot-by-six-inch hole, about four feet below the plane's windows -- in the area where, NTSB investigators later determined, the skin had been creased by the luggage cart.

According to airport spokesman Bob Parker, Port of Seattle police weren't notified about the ground incident until Tuesday, when operations staffers for Alaska contacted them to fill out a "hit-and-run" report on a contract employee who struck the aircraft with a baggage tug.

Airline spokeswoman Caroline Boren said the airline conducted safety briefings with employees at Sea-Tac on Tuesday, "to discuss the importance of rapid and thorough reporting of any ground incidents, whether there is apparent aircraft damage or not."

The incident puts added spotlight on the airline's decision earlier this year to replace unionized ground personnel with workers from London-based Menzies Aviation. As was reported in Aero-News, 472 workers were locked out from their jobs May 13, after rejecting a contract proposal from the airline.

Representatives with Alaska said the airline saw an increase in ground-damage incidents at Sea-Tac right after the switch, delaying a large number of departures from the airport. The situation has since returned to near normal, according to the airline.

Passengers aboard the stricken plane were herded back to the terminal, where they waited for another plane.

"A lot of people were very stunned," said Hermanns about the incident. "It was surreal."

FMI: www.alaskaairlines.com

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