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Experts: Plane not at risk after wall panels broke


SAN FRANCISCO >> An American Airlines flight heading from San Francisco to Dallas was not in danger when several of the passenger cabin’s wall panels cracked loose after an air duct failed, according to the airline and aviation safety experts.

The Boeing 757-200 made an emergency landing Monday back in San Francisco, where passengers described a scenario that, while frightening, did not threaten the plane’s metal structure.

“It’s certainly not something that you want to have happen. Does it pose a clear and present danger to the airplane? The answer is, ‘No,'” Capt. John M. Cox, CEO of Safety Operating Systems, an aviation safety consultancy, said Tuesday.

While it would be alarming for passengers to see any piece of an aircraft break, the panels are more about appearances than safety.

“They are there so you don’t have to look at the bare walls,” said Robert Ditchey, an aeronautical engineer with four decades of experience.

The flight departed San Francisco International Airport shortly before 1 p.m. Monday, and soon after passengers heard what one described as popping noises. Then, several panels began to break loose.

The captain decided to turn around an hour into the flight to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, American Airlines spokesman Matt Miller said.

Air being forced through a blown air duct pushed the panels loose, Miller said Tuesday.

Flight 2293 landed without incident about 2:15 p.m. No one on the plane with 184 passengers and six crew members was hurt, Miller said. Even though the plane’s problem is related to pressurization, the cabin did not lose pressure and oxygen masks did not deploy.

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, said they felt the fuselage violently shake and heard popping noises 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.”

Over the concerns of nervous passengers, the captain announced that the flight would continue 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 plane would be flown Tuesday to the American’s maintenance facility in Tulsa, Oklahoma, for repairs, spokesman Miller said. Passengers were booked on other flights to Dallas Monday night or Tuesday morning, he said.


Justin Pritchard in Los Angeles contributed.

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