The baggage handler responsible for a rupture in the fuselage of an Alaska Airlines jet Monday has been suspended while the incident is...

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The baggage handler responsible for a rupture in the fuselage of an Alaska Airlines jet Monday has been suspended while the incident is investigated.

One of the investigating agencies said the worker did not realize how badly he had damaged the aircraft when he hit it with loading equipment and was afraid to report it.

“He looked at it from about a 10-foot distance and said he just grazed it, so he didn’t tell anyone,” said Jim Struhsaker, the investigator in charge of reviewing the accident for the National Transportation Safety Board. “I don’t think he was being malicious.”

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About 20 minutes after Flight 536 departed for Burbank, Calif., the crease in the MD-80 blew into a 1-foot-by-6-inch hole. Cabin pressure dropped, and passengers had to put on oxygen masks.

The jet returned safely to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport at about 5 p.m. Monday. Alaska reported the incident Tuesday. No one was hurt.

Although Alaska workers say the airline is safe, they say they are concerned about how the baggage handler was trained and why he did not feel comfortable reporting the incident before the plane took off.

The Seattle-based carrier replaced its 472 unionized baggage handlers at Sea-Tac in May with workers from Menzies Aviation, a company near London that handles cargo and baggage for more than 500 airline customers worldwide.

Alaska has said it is saving about $13.7 million a year by hiring Menzies instead of using unionized workers.

The NTSB, Federal Aviation Administration, Alaska and Port of Seattle police are investigating the accident. A final report could be months away.

A spokeswoman for Menzies said the company is conducting its own investigation.

“Menzies Aviation is greatly concerned by Monday’s unfortunate incident,” she said. “Our company and our employees are thankful that all the passengers on Flight 536 and Alaska Airlines personnel returned safely.”

Paul Emmert, vice chairman of the Alaska pilots union, says he worries Menzies workers aren’t as experienced as Alaska’s unionized workers were.

Lower wages have led to more turnover, he said, which translates into a newer, less-experienced work force.

“I’d like to see more training,” said Emmert, an Alaska captain. “I’d like to see them pay a little more, and I’d like to see Alaska bring back our own employees.”

The International Association of Machinists, which represented the laid-off workers and represents baggage handlers at other Alaska Airlines locations, also wonders about training.

“One thing our trainers tell us is, you must report any type of damage to the aircraft,” said Bobby De Pace, president of IAM District 143. “For these people to let that plane go, I have to think they were never told the seriousness of any type of damage to the aircraft.”

Menzies workers at Sea-Tac are trained mostly by Menzies, not by Alaska, airline spokeswoman Caroline Boren said. The training must comply with Federal Aviation Administration and other requirements.

This week, Alaska and Menzies are holding sessions with the baggage handlers to discuss the importance of reporting incidents on the ground.

A representative for Alaska’s flight attendants is concerned about why the Menzies worker was afraid to report Monday’s incident.

“It may be less a training issue and more of a disclosure issue, because accidents happen,” said Veda Shook, president of the master executive council for Alaska’s flight attendants union.

Alaska had problems with flight delays and baggage handling after hiring Menzies in May, but performance has improved, Boren said.

In June, 48 percent of bags were delivered within 20 minutes of flight arrival. By October, the most recent month for which data are available, that had jumped to 81 percent.

The number of flights delayed because of ramp operations, which includes baggage handling, fell from 13 percent in June to 1 percent in October, Boren said.

The number of ramp problems skyrocketed this year to 72 incidents in the first nine months of 2005, compared with 15 problems in 2004 and 17 problems in 2003, according to a recent report by Seattle Times news partner KING-TV.

In response, the airline said incidents of ground damage increased after Menzies was hired but have since decreased significantly.

Quality-assurance issues are particularly sensitive at Alaska.

Faulty maintenance involving lubrication of a tail-section part was cited by federal investigators in the January 2000 crash of an MD-80 off the Southern California coast.

Flight 261 crashed off Ventura County en route from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, to San Francisco and Seattle. All 88 people on board were killed.

Cockpit noise

delays flight

Shortly after 3 p.m. Wednesday, passengers were taken off Alaska Airlines Flight 536 so that crews could inspect a whistling noise coming from a cockpit window, airline spokeswoman Amanda Tobin said.

Although the aircraft has the same flight number and destination as the plane that made Monday’s emergency landing at Sea-Tac, it was not the same airplane, Tobin said.

The noise was determined not to be a problem, and passengers reboarded. The plane took off just after 5 p.m.

Melissa Allison: 206-464-3312 or mallison@seattletimes.com

Information from staff reporters Steve Miletich and Jennifer Sullivan and from the Los Angeles Times is included in this report.