An American Airlines flight heading from San Francisco to Dallas made an emergency landing when the cabin's wall panels cracked loose, but aviation experts said the plane does not rely on the parts for safety.
While it is disconcerting for passengers to see any piece of an aircraft break, the cabin's wall panels are not part of the plane's structure, said Robert Ditchey, an aeronautical engineer with four decades of experience.
“The plastic wall has no meaning to the safety of the plane. They are there so you don't have to look at the bare walls,” said Ditchey, a former U.S. Navy pilot.
While he agreed with flight attendants who told travelers the problem was cosmetic, “it's not normal for this to happen to a side wall,” he said. “Someone is going to have to fix this airplane.”
The Boeing 757 departed from San Francisco International Airport shortly before 1 p.m. Monday, and the captain decided to turn around an hour into the flight to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport because of a possible blown air duct, American Airlines spokesman Matt Miller said.
Flight 2293 landed without incident about 2:15 p.m. No one on the plane with 184 passengers and six crew members was hurt, he said. Even though the plane's problem is related to pressurization, the cabin did not lose pressure and oxygen masks did not deploy, Miller said.
James Wilson of Kyle, Texas, said he and his fellow passengers knew there was a problem within minutes of takeoff. Wilson, 32, an amateur race car driver returning from a competition in Northern California, said they felt the fuselage violently shake and heard popping noises coming from outside the plane as it made its initial ascent.
Then they watched in horror and screamed for the flight attendants to come as interior panels on both sides of the aircraft pulled apart from the walls.
“It was the whole Row 14 on all sides, from the floor to the ceiling,” said Wilson, who was seated in the row right behind and felt a change in cabin pressure. “It sounded like it was popping and banging so loud at first I thought stuff was coming out of the overhead compartments.”
Crew members were “pulling the panels apart and looking for daylight behind there,” he said.
Wilson took a photograph of what was happening and posted it on his Facebook page so his wife, who was en route to Dallas to pick him up, would know what had happened in case of a crash.
Over the concerns of nervous passengers, the captain announced that the flight would continue on to Dallas because the pressure inside the cabin was stable, but he changed his mind and decided to make the emergency landing after he saw the damaged panels for himself, Wilson said.
“We had some very professional flight attendants, and they did a very good job keeping people calm. They said, 'It's just cosmetic,'” he said.
The Federal Aviation Administration will work with the airline to determine the plane's problem and correct it before it flies again, said FAA spokesman Ian Gregor.
American Airlines plans to send a different plane to fly the passengers to Dallas on Tuesday, Miller said.