Southwest Airlines Inspects Additional Boeing 737s After Hole in Plane

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AP Photo/Christine Ziegler

After a Southwest Airlines plane split open with a hole inflight over Arizona, inspectors are looking for more cracks in the carrier's 737-300 fleet, and have found at least three. Boeing is reportedly putting together a service bulletin for all such planes, with metal fatigue believed to be the cause.

On Friday, Southwest Airlines Flight 812 with 118 passengers on board, from Phoenix to Sacramento, lost cabin pressure after reaching 34,500 feet and made an emergency landing at Yuma, Arizona, after a five-foot hole opened in the roof of the Boeing 737-300.

Once the cabin lost pressure, oxygen masks were deployed as the aircraft made a controlled decent to below 10,000 feet. No passengers were injured, but one flight attendant had minor injuries.

Although the sound of decompression and the sight of falling oxygen masks can be disturbing, pilots are trained for these situations. "The loss of pressurization was rapid, but not explosive," Patrick Smith a pilot who runs the website AskThePilot.com, told AOL Travel News. "There were no control issues, and no further compromise of the fuselage." Smith does reiterate that a hole in an airplane's skin is, "always serious."

The fuselage rupture on the 15-year-old plane was believed to be triggered by cracks, and inspectors have since found surface cracks in three more aircraft. Southwest was inspecting 79 planes, and by mid-day Sunday, 21 Southwest Boeing 737-300s had been inspected, with two aircraft revealing "small, subsurface cracks." The finding of a third crack was revealed by a member of the National Transportation Safety Board.

The carrier said repairs would be completed before the planes would be returned to service. Southwest operates a fleet of 548 aircraft, all Boeing 737s.

"The fleet is constantly undergoing rigorous checks and inspections as directed by the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) and Boeing, the aircraft manufacturer. These checks and inspections are dictated by number of cycles (a cycle is a takeoff and landing) and on a calendar basis as well," Southwest said in an investor relations posting.

Almost 80 Boeing 737-300s will be inspected over the next few days and returned to service if no cracks are found. About 600 flights have been cancelled. Southwest hopes the inspections to be complete by late Tuesday, the carrier said.

The flight recorders for Flight 812, which are often referred to as "black boxes," have been flown to Washington, DC by the NTSB for inspection. So far, the NTSB is saying that the Boeing 737 that flew Flight 812 had signs of additional cracking after landing.

According to the Associated Press, the Boeing service bulletin would suggest extensive inspection of two lines of "lap joints" running length-wise on the fuselage of the planes.

Meanwhile, on Sunday, a Southwest Airlines plane was diverted due to a burning electrical smell in the passenger cabin. The jetliner, en route from Oakland to San Diego, made an emergency landing in Los Angeles. The plane's 142 passengers changed aircraft at Los Angeles International Airport and continued to San Diego without incident, a Southwest spokeswoman told the Associated Press. Nobody was seriously injured.

Like the Arizona planes, the diverted aircraft was a 737-300.

In 2008, Southwest was fined $10.2 million by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for not completing proper safety checks of their aircraft.

All passengers on board Flight 812 have been given a full refund, an apology and two complimentary round-trip tickets for future flying.

(Fran Golden and Rebecca Dolan contributed to this report.)

UPDATE: A third Southwest Boeing 737-300 has been discovered with cracks, according to the AP. Southwest is expected to cancel an additional 70 flights on Monday while inspections continue. "The inspection involves a non-destructive test (NDT) in the form of Low-Frequency Eddy current of the aircraft skin," Southwest announced on their blog. "This test is designed to detect any subsurface fatigue in the skin that is not visible to the eye." As of Monday morning, 57 aircraft have been inspected and returned to scheduled service.


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