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Originally published Friday, January 6, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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New Alaska mishap at Sea-Tac

For the second time in less than two weeks, an Alaska Airlines jet has been damaged at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport due to missteps...

Seattle Times aerospace reporter

For the second time in less than two weeks, an Alaska Airlines jet has been damaged at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport due to missteps by ground personnel working for Menzies Aviation.

"Alaska Airlines takes this incident extremely seriously," said airline spokeswoman Amanda Tobin.

"We are conducting a thorough review of the events leading up to and during this event to understand the exact root causes of the incident and to take additional steps to prevent it from repeating," she said.

In yesterday's incident, a door and engine were damaged when a Menzies worker towing a Boeing 737 caused it to collide with equipment at the terminal.

A Menzies worker at Los Angeles International Airport was also involved in an accident that damaged an Alaska Airlines 737-700 Tuesday night, Tobin confirmed, calling the damage "minor."

Menzies is assembling a task force of safety experts from around the world and bringing them to Seattle for a 90-day review of its Sea-Tac operations, Tobin said. Menzies said "senior executives" will conduct "a full and immediate review" of its Seattle operations.

On Dec. 26, damage caused by a Menzies employee resulted in a frightening depressurization at 26,000 feet and an emergency landing at Sea-Tac.

Menzies has suspended the employees responsible for both Seattle accidents pending further investigation.

Alaska hired Menzies in May to handle its ground operations at Sea-Tac after it fired 472 baggage handlers and other ramp workers represented by the International Association of Machinists. The carrier said it would save $13.7 million by outsourcing the work to Menzies. At the time, Alaska had contracts with Menzies covering 13 other airports.

Menzies is one of the world's largest providers of ground services to airlines, with operations at 92 airports in 23 countries. Customers include elite carriers such as Singapore Airlines and British Airways.

Its Alaska work at Sea-Tac is its largest single contract. The cover of the company's interim financial report for 2005 boasts Menzies handles 1,000 flights weekly in Seattle.

Thursday's accident occurred around 11:30 a.m., when an Alaska 737-700 was parked at gate D2 and connected to a push tug, which tows planes into and out of gates.

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A Menzies employee accidentally put the tug in reverse, jerking the plane forward about three feet toward the terminal building, Tobin said.

Alaska had just begun boarding Flight 808 to Dallas-Fort Worth. Four passengers were on the plane at the time. No one was injured.

The door of the plane hit the jetway, breaking a hinge.

The right engine hit a belt loader moving baggage into the jet. The engine cowling was damaged, though the extent was not immediately clear.

The incident was promptly reported to the airline and to the Port of Seattle. The plane was taken out of service so that Alaska personnel could assess its condition, Tobin said.

Passengers were placed on a different jet that departed Sea-Tac at 1:28 p.m., about two hours behind schedule.

In last month's accident, the Menzies employee did not report the incident to his supervisor or to Alaska, later telling investigators he merely "grazed" the airplane.

The damage subsequently caused a 1-foot by 6-inch rupture in the fuselage when the plane reached 26,000 feet, causing the cabin to lose pressure. Oxygen masks dropped from the ceiling, and pilots put the plane into a steep dive. The plane returned safely to Sea-Tac with no injuries.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating.

Alaska had already begun to make changes at Sea-Tac.

According to notes from a conference call with union officials and Alaska management Dec. 30, Alaska said it will include its trainers in Menzies' training sessions, and eventually have four full-time supervisors overseeing Menzies.

Alaska also held safety briefings for more than 400 Menzies employees in the past week.

The briefings "emphasized the importance of reporting any and all incidents immediately, and that's exactly what we saw [Thursday]," Tobin said.

David Bowermaster: 206-464-2724 or dbowermaster@seattletimes.com

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