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American Airlines Plane Makes Emergency Landing As Cabin Walls Crack In Flight

15/10/2014 11:43 BST | Updated 15/10/2014 11:59 BST

A plane was forced to make an emergency landing after the wall panels began breaking apart in the cabin.

The drama unfolded on board an American Airlines flight from San Francisco to Dallas shortly after take off on Monday afternoon.

Still strapped in their seats, passengers were left terrified when a series of loud popping and ripping noises began erupting from the walls.

american airlines emergency landing

A passenger moves away from the cracking cabin panel

Several plastic interior panels snapped out and became pinned to the window seats in one row, exposing insulation.

Passenger James Wilson said: “All of a sudden there was this really loud ‘pop pop pop’ and then a ripping sound.

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“As this was all going on we’re all looking around trying to figure out what’s going on, it sounded like bowling balls were falling from the overhead bins.

“Then… the plastic panels, the insulation panels started ripping out from the sides of the aircraft in the same row, on both sides and up at the top.

american airlines emergency landing

A member of the cabin crew peers into the gap

“It was terrifying, we didn’t know what was going on, we were all shouting for the flight crew, ‘Come look, the walls are caving in.”’

Flight crew inspected the damage, as did the pilot, but the decision to make an emergency landing until almost an hour later.

An investigation revealed the issue was cosmetic and limited to the interior of the cabin.

There were no injuries among the 184 passengers and six crew members.

American Airlines emergency landing

Q: What the hell happened?

A: American Airlines says a duct between the panel and the metal skin of the aircraft failed and air forced the panels loose. The Federal Aviation Administration isn't disputing that account.

Q: Still, it sounds pretty bad. Why not turn around immediately?

A: The cabin pressure was normal and oxygen masks didn't drop, meaning the problem was cosmetic, not a hole in the exterior. While planes can fly with a puncture in their skin, it is very dangerous. The aircraft was safe to fly, according to American and several aviation experts. Still, the decision to turn around also made sense. "In a day where we manage risk, why bother" flying on? asked Carol Giles, a safety consultant and former FAA aircraft maintenance division manager. "They did the right thing."

Q: How often do these panels pop off?

A: Not very. Several experts said they had seen it happen on other aircraft, either as pilots or passengers. Boeing, the manufacturer of the 757-200 aircraft, declined comment on whether the problem had happened before.

Q: Was the plane just plain old?

A: The Federal Aviation Administration granted the plane's certificate to fly 19 years ago, according to government records. That makes it average age for American's fleet, airline spokesman Matt Miller said. He wouldn't comment on when it last went in for a heavy maintenance check that would have involved testing the ducts. All American planes are "in airworthy condition when dispatched for a flight," he said.

Q: Why would a duct like this fail?

A: American will be trying to answer that at its maintenance facility in Oklahoma, where the plane was being flown Tuesday. There are various possibilities, among them a bad connection between two ducts, or a hole that wasn't caught at an inspection. Or, "this kind of non-safety related part could just fail," said John McGraw, an aerospace consultant and former deputy director in the FAA's aviation safety service.