An Alaska Airlines Boeing 737-900 with 173 passengers aboard, bound from Ixtapa, Mexico, to Los Angeles and ultimately to Spokane, made an emergency landing Saturday in Puerto Vallarta.
An Alaska Airlines spokesman and a Seattle passenger said the plane's pilots became concerned after feeling a vibration from a maintenance hatch on the right side of the aircraft and worried that it could fly off and damage an engine.
"It would have been a shame to have a catastrophe based upon something like a door not being shut," said Aric Weiker of Seattle, who was with his family aboard the flight.
Alaska Airlines spokesman Paul McElroy said the pilots' suspicions were confirmed when the plane landed in Puerto Vallarta about an hour into the flight.
The 5- or 6-inch-square door, used for electrical extensions and headsets for ground crews, had not been closed properly before takeoff from Ixtapa.
Weiker said the plane landed in Puerto Vallarta about an hour after taking off from Ixtapa.
Passengers, who were calm, noticed something amiss a half-hour into the flight when the plane "made a sharp turn and headed in a direction that was not Los Angeles," Weiker said.
He said over the plane's public address system the pilot told passengers he was checking a vibration and believed it was related to a door or hatch that had not been closed properly by the maintenance crew.
"He (the pilot) said the reason we were landing was if the door flies off it could cause problems" by striking an engine, Weiker said.
McElroy said the plane was due to arrive in Los Angeles at 6:52 p.m. Saturday, but arrived at 9:25 p.m.
Weiker said he was on the ground in Puerto Vallarta for about two hours while the plane was inspected for damage and the pilots documented the incident.
Weiker said he and other passengers were more upset at how the airline handled their missed connections after they cleared customs and retrieved their baggage in Los Angeles.
After waiting 31/2 hours in a customer service line for a connecting flight Monday, Weiker pressed for and found an earlier flight home to Seattle but from Burbank in the middle of the night.
Alaska Airlines, the ninth-largest U.S. airline, has been under a microscope in the public eye over its maintenance practices since the January 2000 crash of Flight 261, a Seattle-bound MD-80 jet carrying 88 passengers. All perished when the plane suddenly lost control and plunged into the Pacific off the coast of California.
Following a long investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board ruled that the catastrophe occurred because a 2-foot jackscrew controlling the plane's horizontal stabilizer high in its tail had not been greased.
The board criticized Alaska for poor maintenance practices and the FAA for lack of oversight of the carrier.
Last year, on Feb. 24, the company reported that no links were found between a series of five in-flight incidents in 10 days involving possible problems with cabin pressurization. The airline conducted a fleetwide inspection of all jets.
In January 2006, the FAA proposed a $500,000 fine against the carrier for operating one of its 737s without proper emergency exit lights in the passenger cabin.
Also in 2006, Alaska Airlines took several steps to stem $170 million in losses in the previous five years, including negotiating early retirement contracts and shifting to an all-Boeing 737 fleet to save on fuel, maintenance and training. P-I staff reporters contributed to this report.
P-I reporter Mike Barber
can be reached at 206-448-8018