By Quentin Fottrell
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.
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?