Wall Street Journal: Latam Air flight plunge might have been caused by a mistake in the cockpit

Mar 15, 2024, 5:08 PM

Latam Airlines 787...

A Latam Airlines Boeing 787 Dreamliner may have plunged hundreds of feet because of a cockpit incident with a flight attendant. (Brett Phibbs/AFP via Getty Images via CNN Newsource)

(Brett Phibbs/AFP via Getty Images via CNN Newsource)

New York (CNN) — A terrifying plunge on a Latam Airlines Boeing 787 Dreamliner flight earlier this week might have been caused by a mistake made in the cockpit, and not any flaw in the Boeing jet, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal.

The Journal report, which cites unnamed US industry officials briefed on preliminary evidence from an investigation of the incident, said that a flight attendant may have mistakenly hit a switch on the pilot’s seat while serving a meal, leading a motorized feature to push the pilot into the controls and push down the plane’s nose. The pilot eventually recovered control and landed the plane safely.

Boeing did confirm a separate Wall Street Journal report Friday that it had sent an advisory Thursday evening to airlines that operate the 787 Dreamliner, “which included instructions for inspecting and maintaining [cockpit seat] switches.” It said it had sent a similar service notice to airlines in 2017.

“We are recommending operators perform an inspection at the next maintenance opportunity,” it said.

The US Federal Aviation Administration said it is also looking at Boeing’s Thursday notice to airlines about the cockpit seat switches, as well as its earlier notice from 2017. The agency is convening a board of safety experts to provide feedback to Boeing on its notice to airlines that operate the Dreamliner.

“The agency will continue to monitor the situation closely,” the FAA said.

Asked by CNN if the service notice sent yesterday was due to some preliminary findings of investigators into the Latam incident, a Boeing spokesman deferred all comment on the cause of the incident to the official investigators.

Dozens of passengers were injured when the plane plunged, as some were thrown to the ceiling of the cabin. One passenger told the media that a pilot had told him he had lost control of the plane when “my gauges just kind of went blank on me.” That comment suggested a new safety issue for Boeing, which as been struggling with years of safety and quality issues around its commercial jets.

CNN has yet to be able to confirm the Journal’s report about the cause of the plunge.

Latam on Monday said the plane “had a technical event during the flight which caused a strong movement,” adding it had landed as scheduled in Auckland. Asked about indications the problem with the flight was a cockpit mishap, the airline told the Journal the company is working with authorities on the investigation, but declined to comment further until the investigation is finished.

Latam’s pilots union declined to comment. The company’s flight attendant union didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

In a statement to CNN Tuesday, Boeing said it was “working to gather more information about the flight and will provide any support needed by our customer.”

Investigators from New Zealand and Chilean aviation authorities are investigating the flight. Latam is a Chilean airline. They are looking at information from the black boxes, which record data from airline instruments as well as an audio recording of what was said inside the cockpit. The black boxes have been removed from the plane and are in the possession of the New Zealand Transport Accident Investigation Commission.

Boeing safety issues

It would be good news for Boeing if it is cleared of any fault in the Latam flight. The company is facing multiple investigations by both the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board over an incident on a January 5 Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 Max flight in which a door plug blew out, leaving a gaping hole in the side of the plane minutes into that flight.

Fortunately, no one was seriously injured on that flight from what could been a catastrophic accident. But the accident has brought a renewed focus to the safety of Boeing commercial jets, a record that included two fatal crashes in 2018 and 2019 that killed a total of 346 people.

Boeing has accepted legal liability for those crashes, which were attributed to a design flaw in the 737 Max. The Justice Department is now investigating whether or not the latest Boeing issues brought to light in the wake of the Alaska Air incident would violate a controversial deferred prosecution agreement the company reached in 2021, which could open the company for criminal liability.

An audit of Boeing since the Alaska Air flight by the FAA found multiple instances of “non-compliance issues in Boeing’s manufacturing process control, parts handling and storage, and product control.” The agency has given Boeing 90 days to come up with a plan to fix its quality issues. Boeing has said it is working to meet the FAA’s demands.

A preliminary report by the NTSB into the January 5 Alaska Air flight found that the plane had left the Boeing factory in October missing the four bolts needed to keep the door plug in place.

The NTSB report has yet to assess blame for the incident aboard the plane, but it has criticized Boeing for not having the documentation as to which employees worked on the door plug.

But Boeing executives have conceded the company must do a better job on the quality and safety of its aircraft.

“Whatever final conclusions are reached, Boeing is accountable for what happened,” said Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun in comments to investors when discussing the company’s latest financial losses. “An event like this must not happen on an airplane that leaves our factory. We simply must do better for our customers and their passengers.”

The-CNN-Wire™ & © 2024 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

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Wall Street Journal: Latam Air flight plunge might have been caused by a mistake in the cockpit