Passengers aboard a United Airlines flight from Chicago to Santa Ana, Calif., took to Twitter and other social media Sunday to express how terrifying it felt to have an emergency evacuation slide suddenly inflate inside the cabin at 38,000 feet.
“Scariest flight of all time,” Taylor Martinez, a passenger on United flight 1463 tweeted after the slide inflated in the back of the cabin. Other passengers, noting the loud hissing sound the slide made, thought that maybe a door had opened in the aircraft.
Nobody was injured by the slide, but it did force the pilot to make an emergency landing in Kansas. All of the 96 passengers were boarded in a hotel room for the night, compliments of United Airlines, and flown to California the following day.
“Oh golly, I’ve never seen that before,” the pilot said as he stepped into the cabin immediately after landing, passenger Mike Schroeder told the Associated Press.
United Airlines maintenance crews will inspect the Boeing 737-700 aircraft, and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) dispatched a team of investigators to Wichita to examine the plane. U.S. officials said that an investigation could take weeks to complete.
Although evacuation slides inflating inside the fuselage during flight is a rare occurrence, it is not uncommon for the emergency devices to malfunction in other ways.
After Asiana flight 214 crashed at San Francisco International Airport a year ago, most of the emergency slides failed to deploy while others inflated inside the cabin, pinning members of the flight crew underneath, blocking exits, and hampering evacuation efforts.
The latest incident could come as an embarrassment for FAA regulators, who have known about emergency slide defects for years but have failed to take adequate, meaningful steps to correct them.
According to an NBC investigative report last year, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determined in 2000 that at least one slide failed to operate correctly on 37 percent of the emergency airplane evacuations it studied. Moreover, an NBC probe of aviation maintenance issues found that at least 3,315 problems with evacuation slides were reported to federal regulators from 2007 to 2012.
The NTSB’s 2000 report followed a similar report in 1999, which focused on the 1996 emergency evacuation of a Boeing 737 in Grand Rapids, Mich. One of the evacuation slides “fully inflated inside the cabin,” blocking two of the airplane’s emergency exits and impeding evacuation efforts, the report said.
Problems like these go back several decades, but NBC found no evidence that the FAA acted on the NTSB’s recommendations for improving evacuation slides. In 1999, the NTSB called the FAA’s failure to implement its safety recommendations “unacceptable” before closing out the investigation.