Southwest in trouble-shooting mode following fuselage crack

Thursday, April 28, 2011, 19:56 by Aviation Correspondent

A Boeing 737-300 aircraft owned by the Southwest Airlines, the largest domestic airline in US made an emergency landing at Marine Corps Air Station in Yuma, Arizona after a widespread fuselage crack was found in its cabin. The Flight 812 was detected with a 5 foot tear opening in the fuselage 20 minutes after its take-off from Phoenix to Sacramento, which was flying at a height of 36,000 feet, causing minor injuries to a passenger and a flight attendant.

On the aftermath of the accident, the Southwest airlines started inspecting its older model 737-300 aircrafts in co-operation with Boeing engineers and cancelled hundreds of flights over the weekend. A company statement issued said that small subsurface fuselage cracks were found on two other planes, which require repairs. Nineteen planes had been successfully returned to service after the inspections by Sunday and the rest 79 are expected to complete the procedures by late Tuesday. Some 175 flight cancellations are likely to follow on Monday.

According to Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), of the 288 Boeing 737-300s which makes up the US fleet, 170 are being owned by the Southwest Airlines. US Airways Group which flies 19 737-300s said periodic inspections had been made to avoid any fatigue-related problems. The airlines which fly a newer model of 737 including the Delta Airlines, American Airlines and Continental Airlines escaped the precarious situation.

The FAA assists the National Transportation Safety Board [NTSB] in the Southwest’s investigation of the Flight 812. An NTSB resource said that the crack could not have been detected by the naked eye. It could have been possibly detected when the plane was disassembled for heavy maintenance in March 2010.In contrast; a Southwest official said that the airline was in compliance with the safety inspections.

The aircraft under scrutiny is about 15 years old. The Southwest has been gradually replacing the aircrafts with newer models since 1984, when the first 737-300 flew. The Associated Press reported that the FAA records showed eight instances of cracks in aircraft frame which were repaired in March 2010.
The Southwest Airlines is under pressure as Friday’s incident is not the first time the safety of the passengers is questioned. The Southwest Airlines was fined $7.5 million by the Federal Aviation Administration(FAA) for operating 737s without required fuselage structural inspections in 2006/2007.More recently in July 2009 , the Southwest Flight 2294 flying from Nashville to Baltimore was detected with a football-sized hole in its fuselage near the tail causing a forced landing in Charleston, West Virginia. It will be a tough time ahead for the Southwest to retain its credibility and ensuring proper safety of the passengers.

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