On Friday, June 4, Joseph Willett IV, 39, was returning from a work trip in Miami to his home in Raleigh, North Carolina. His flight — AA 4284, booked through American Airlines — was scheduled to take off at 2:19 from Miami International Airport.
“I travel all the time for work,” Willett, who is the regional sales manager for Kol Bio-Medical Instruments, told the Herald over the phone. “So I thought there was nothing that could surprise me. But what happened next—I swear I never saw anything like it.”
The plane was preparing for takeoff, said Willett, and he was sitting in seat 16C with his headphones on. He leaned back as the engine roared to life and the plane started speeding down the runway. Then, there was a loud crash from somewhere near the front of the airplane. Willett was thrust forward against his seatbelt as the plane braked to a halt.
“I didn’t know what was happening. I thought maybe we were on the wrong runway or that we were going to slam into another plane. I mean, I travel a lot. It wasn’t like, a gradual stop. We were getting ready to take off and then — bam. I thought something really serious must have happened.”
Across the aisle, frightened passengers pulled up their window shutters to see what was going on.
A minute or two passed, he said, before a flight attendant apologized to passengers. The door at the front of the plane had opened, she said.
“She then told us that the door was locked now, and that they believed the problem had been resolved. And then a few minutes later, we just took off again, like nothing had happened.”
Willett said he and the other passengers muttered to each other about how odd and frightening their experience had been as they got off the plane in Raleigh. And when Willett told his wife the story after he got home, she too was shocked and upset. So Willett submitted a complaint to American Airlines through an online customer relations form, detailing what had happened. He received an instantaneous automated response via email— a generic confirmation that the airline would review his complaint, logged in as No. 1-29803624835, and get back to him promptly. “We value your feedback,” the email read, “and will respond as soon as possible.”
People who travel a lot for a living exchange war stories about headaches, hassles and scary moments in the air. But what made this event especially strange is that the airline would tell both him and a Herald reporter that it never happened.
“The incident was not only unusual, but could have been quite serious,” Malcolm Sparrow, an aviation expert and professor at Harvard University, told the Herald, after hearing a description of what Willett had said he’d experienced.
“It could be a mechanical failure of the door, or a human error in failing to close it and cross-check the closure properly,” he said. Either way, the incident could have had potentially very serious consequences, he added, including “explosive decompression” had it happened at altitude, and potential loss of life.
While some airplane doors can’t fail at altitude because they are held shut by the higher internal cabin pressure on the plane, this is only the case with “plug type” doors, like the emergency escape hatches over the wings, said Sparrow. It’s not necessarily the case for the main doors, which open outward and not inward.
“The most important thing to know is that planes do not make money while they’re still on the ground,” said Najmedin Meshkati, an aviation safety professor at the University of Southern California. “So everyone is pushing to get turnaround shortened — to lessen the time it takes to board and to get the plane off the tarmac.”
Over the years, Meshkati explained, this dynamic has caused a fairly significant increase in human-error-related incidents due to an over-extension of the staff and crew, particularly on the tarmac before takeoff. The incident that Willett described, he said, would certainly fall in line with this pattern. Once the door became unsecured, Meshkati added, it would have triggered an alarm and the pilot would have had to stop the plane, as Willett described.
Even though a tragedy did not occur on Willett’s flight, both experts agree that a door malfunction like the one that Willett described is not only alarming, but should be investigated to prevent something similar from happening in the future.
“What you really don’t want to discover is that AA either attempted or was even tempted to hush it up,” Sparrow added, emphasizing the need for a public disclosure of the incident, how it happened, and remedies the airline will take to make sure it won’t happen again.
The Herald relayed Willett’s concerns to American Airlines, eliciting a response from Laura Masvidal, AA’s local corporate communications manager.
“Thanks for reaching out,” she wrote. “We’ve been researching on our end and there’s no record of this occurring.” It was June 7, three days after Willett had submitted his complaint about the incident with the airline.
In the meantime, a Herald reporter contacted the National Transportation Board (NTSB), to ask if it had any record of the incident. The NTSB directed the reporter to the local Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) office in Miami, which referred the Herald reporter back to the NTSB. When the Herald reached out to Miami International Airport for details, the public relations representative, Greg Chin, referred the reporter to the airline.
But American reiterated its denial. “We checked with all of the operational teams,” an email from Masvidal sent the morning of June 8 read, four days after Willett had submitted his initial complaint. “And this incident never occurred.”
Another email came a little before 5 in the afternoon that same day: “We’ve checked all sources internally and with our regional partners, and the flight departed three minutes early and there were no service disruptions…there is no record of any such incident taking place.”
On June 9, five days after he had submitted his complaint, Willett received an emailed response from American’s Customer Relations representative, Lynda Wat. It did not explain what had occurred, whether it was being investigated, or if the crew or other passengers had been interviewed.
But it did say: “There is nothing more important to us than the safety of our customers and employees,” and added: “All of our training and procedures are designed to ensure the safety, comfort and well-being of our customers while they are in our care. We are confident this intensive training was evident on your flight.”
Willett didn’t think that sufficed.
“All I wanted was for them to acknowledge what happened and make sure that something like this wouldn’t happen again in the future. But instead, they’re just trying to pretend like it never happened, even though the plane was full of witnesses who heard and saw what happened. It’s disgraceful.”
Willett wrote back to Wat, asking what American meant by its response.
On June 10 a little after 1 in the afternoon, Wat left a voicemail on Willett’s phone.
“Of course we would never deny that it occurred,” Wat said in the voicemail. “You witnessed it yourself, obviously.”
“This is not a compensable type of situation that we would compensate for,” she added, “but we do know that it was a safety issue and we have recorded what you said and sent that over for training purposes to that station.”
Willett, who had not asked for any sort of compensation, was confused.
About an hour later, Watt followed up by email: “As per my voicemail, we would never deny that this incident did happen,” she wrote, although the company had done so in writing multiple times. “I am sure that a report was done internally by the crew and for the flight attendant whose job it was to secure the door.”
“Your opinion of us is very important and your continued patronage is essential,” the email concluded. “We appreciate your loyalty as our customer and we hope you will be convinced that our commitment to provide good customer service is absolute. We will look forward to seeing you aboard again soon.”
Willett was still confused over what that meant — were they going to address whatever went wrong?
In response, Wat sent him an email inviting him to take a one-minute online customer survey.
As to how the incident had been addressed, she wrote: “We do not receive any feedback from station managers in Customer Relations or to passengers. Any action taken by management is confidential and remains between a manager and the employee involved.”
Wat added: “Joseph, I know it was not a good situation but I’m sure it was handled appropriately. We appreciate you for bringing it to our attention as well. Thank you again, we will look forward to having you aboard again soon.”
On the afternoon of Friday, June 11, moments after this article was posted online, Masvidal from Miami corporate communications called the Herald and said she had “just learned today” that the cockpit door had opened as the plane was preparing to take off.
“They closed it,” she said. “It was a nonissue.”
Willett said he is switching to Delta.
This article has been updated with a comment from Laura Masvidal.