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Are Planes Still Safe?

After a Southwest Airlines plane split open with a hole in its roof in-flight over Arizona, airline safety inspectors, the Federal Aviation Authority, Southwest and the 737-300’s manufacturer Boeing are all scrambling to find out what went wrong and to reassure the public.

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Southwest has since found five other 737-300s with “small subsurface cracks,” according to the latest update from the Dallas-based discount airline, and Boeing didn’t expect these kinds of problems from a plane with a relatively low amount of mileage.

A spokesman for Boeing tells Pay Dirt, “The planes in question were not expected to show any signs of cracking problems until around 60,000 cycles.” The Southwest 737-300 involved in the incident had 39,000 cycles. (One cycle equals a takeoff and landing.)

Do you have a renewed fear of flying? And, if so, is it warranted?

Terrence Kelly, department chair of Aviation Science of at Parks College of Engineering, Aviation and Technology at St. Louis University, says U.S. carriers are among the safest in the world: “I would go to the airport right now and get on a Southwest jet without hesitation.”

Kelly, who is also an airframe and power plant mechanic and has not worked with Southwest Airlines, says he still has faith in both the airline and the regulators. “I think the U.S. carriers are the safest in the world. It’s a process of continuous improvement.”

Dr. Todd Curtis, airline safety analyst and founder of Airsafe.com, says there are multiple methods of detecting fatigue cracking in the aluminum skin of an aircraft before it becomes potentially dangerous and believes the FAA will develop new maintenance procedures.

“The average passenger may be understandably stressed out from the media coverage highlighting these rare but dangerous situations with metal fatigue, though in my opinion there is little extra risk to the average passenger,” says Curtis, who has previously worked with Boeing.

The 15-year-old Southwest plane in Friday’s incident belongs to a fleet with an average age of 11 years. “This isn’t to do with the age of the aircraft, it’s to do with the way it’s manufactured,” a Southwest spokeswoman says. Boeing says it’s waiting for the FAA’s “complete air directive.”

But in 2008, the FAA leveled a $10.2 million fine against Southwest, later reduced to $7.5 million, for operating 46 planes for nearly a two-year period “without performing mandatory inspections for fuselage fatigue cracking.” Six of those 46 planes were found to have fatigue cracks.

On the back of the latest incident, Southwest immediately withdrew and inspected 79 of its planes and the FAA issued a directive requiring that all airlines inspect 737-300s and some older 737 models, and change the way airlines carry out maintenance of such planes.

Do you find the response of Boeing, the FAA and Southwest reassuring?

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    • I’m impressed of blogs.smartmoney.com , I need to say. Really not often do I encounter a blog that’s each educative and entertaining, and let me inform you, you have got hit the nail on the head. Your concept is outstanding; the difficulty is one thing that not sufficient people are speaking intelligently about. I’m very blissful that I stumbled throughout this in my seek for something regarding this.

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    • “Do you find the response of Boeing, the FAA and Southwest reassuring?”

      I trust Boeing and Southwest to do whatever makes the most money. Without the FAA, they would run those planes until they came apart in midair and then say, “That happens sometimes.”

    • A key question from someone who worked as an engineer in the aircraft industry for thirty years. Are these cracks all in the same area of the airframe, or are they randomly scattered? If concentrated in one area, the problem can be solved by strengthening that area very substantially. The elimination of fatigue failure usually requires t\hat the stresses in the area be reduced by at least an order of magnitude. As difficult and expensive as that is, If the cracking occurs all over the aircraft skin then the problem is far worse.. .

    • What is unfortunate in the 737 incident is stress cracks in aluminum is fairly easy to spot visually. No test equipment needed. Even small cracks leave a visible trail of dark gray oxide. But the top of an aircraft is the least observable external area. Unless you are doing an inspection, you just won’t notice.

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  • Pay Dirt examines the millions of consumer decisions Americans make every day: What to buy, how much to pay, whether to rave or complain. Lead written by Quentin Fottrell, the blog examines these interactions, providing readers with news, insight and tips on shopping, spending, customer service, and companies that do right – and wrong – by their customers. Send items, questions and comments to quentin.fottrell@dowjones.com or tweet @SMPayDirt.

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