Monday, April 4, 2011

Southwest airlines: US to order emergency checks of older 737s

The US government will order emergency checks of dozens of Boeing 737s after Southwest airlines was forced to ground planes over safety concerns. Southwest cancelled hundreds of flights after a five-foot tear opened in the fuselage of a plane 20 minutes after taking off from Phoenix on Friday. The Federal Aviation Administration has now ordered fuselage inspections of older 737-300, -400, and -500 models, involving what could be time-consuming and repetitive electromagnetic checks. "This action is designed to detect cracking in a specific part of the aircraft that cannot be spotted with visual inspection," FAA administrator Randy Babbitt said. Boeing will offer its own advice to airlines outlining specific inspection steps. The FAA said most of the 80 jets needing checks in America are planes flown by Southwest, and have accumulated high numbers of take-offs and landings. Foreign regulators are expected to adopt the FAA order for airlines they regulate, covering another 95 planes worldwide. Southwest is already carrying out its own round of voluntary emergency inspections following Friday's emergency in Arizona.

Flight 812 was heading from Phoenix to Sacramento when the tear opened in the fuselage. Southwest has struggled with fatigue cracking on its older aircraft, which safety experts and other industry insiders attribute to the aggressive way it uses those planes. Friday's incident was the second time in two years that a Southwest plane experienced a fuselage rupture soon after takeoff at more than 30,000 feet. Both planes landed safely. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the latest incident andis likely to take a fresh look at Southwest's maintenance practices and FAA oversight of the carrier. "They are going to be pushed very hard on this," said one safety expert familiar with the thinking of transportation investigators. Southwest cancelled 600 flights over the weekend and another 70 yesterday as it worked to inspect planes and get them back into service. Southwest hoped to complete the checks on Tuesday.

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