A Dallas-bound American Airlines flight that departed from San Francisco International Airport turned back and made an emergency landing after some of the cabin's wall panels cracked loose, aviation and airlines officials said.
The captain of the Boeing 757 decided to turn around an hour into the flight to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport because of a possible blown air duct, American Airlines spokesman Matt Miller said.
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Flight 2293 departed from SFO shortly before 1 p.m. Monday and landed without incident about 2:15 p.m. No one on the plane with 184 passengers and six crew members was hurt, he said.
"The captain elected to return to San Francisco and landed the plane safely," Miller said.
Even though the plane's problem is related to pressurization, the cabin did not lose pressure and oxygen masks did not deploy, he said.
Flight attendants told passengers the problem was "cosmetic," a passenger said.
Aviation safety experts agreed with that assessment and said that while it is disconcerting for passengers to see any piece of the plane break, the cabin's wall panels are not part of the plane's structure.
"The plastic wall has no meaning to the safety of the plane. 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.
"On the other hand, it's not normal for this to happen to a side wall," added Ditchey, a former U.S. Navy pilot. "Someone is going to have to fix this airplane."
James Wilson, of Kyle, Texas, said he and his fellow passengers knew there was a problem within minutes after takeoff from San Francisco. Wilson, 32, an amateur race car driver returning from a competition in Northern California, said they felt the fuselage violently shake and heard popping noises coming from outside of the plane 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."
Crew members were "pulling the panels apart and looking for daylight behind there," he said.
Wilson took a photograph of what was happening and posted it on his Facebook page so his wife, who was en route to Dallas to pick him up, would know what had happened in case of a crash.
Over the concerns of nervous passengers, the captain announced that the flight would continue on 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, according to Wilson.
"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 Federal Aviation Administration will work with the airline to determine the plane's problem and correct it before it flies again, said FAA spokesman Ian Gregor.
The passengers are still in San Francisco, and American Airlines plans to send a plane from elsewhere to fly them to Dallas on Tuesday, Miller said.