Video: Southwest struggling to recover from air scare

  1. Closed captioning of: Southwest struggling to recover from air scare

    >>> good evening. while they are fortunate to have avoided a disaster in the air tonight southwest airlines has a big problem. so does the maker of the 737. so do thousands of people with plans to fly. the issue is cracks in the fuselage of some boeing 737s. most of the cracks too small to see, but one of them grew large enough to open up a hole in the roof of a southwest jet a few days back. that incident has now triggered the inspection of more 737s across the country. this is going to bring new attention to our short-haul aircraft in this country. in the air for multiple flights per day and carrying a lot of the passenger load. nbc's tom costello who covers aviation for us, starts us off from washington tonight. good evening.

    >> reporter: hi, brian. the f.a.a. is talking about more frequent inspections while southwest says of the 79 planes grounded over the weekend three were found to have small cracks and 64 have been returned to service already. nearly 72 hours after southwest flight 812 made the emergency landing in arizona the f.a.a. is ordering checks on specific groups of the 737 300s, 400s and 500s with at least 30,000 cycles. the plane involved in friday's emergency had nearly 40,000 cycles on it. investigators were surprised to find signs of pre-existinging cracking under a lap joint and along a rivet line. a large chunk of the fuselage will undergo metal fatigue tests at the lab in washington .

    >> it was not believed that this was an area that could fail until we see it now.

    >> reporter: today's f.a.a. inspection order affects 175 planes worldwide. 80 in the u.s. the vast majority at southwest . investigators are wondering whether planes used on short haul flights with multiple takeoffs and landings like southwest routes incur greater metal fatigue as the skin of the plane expands and contracts.

    >> i think part of this is not only inspecting the plane but looking at how often the planes are used, how often they take off, how often they land.

    >> reporter: the 737 involved had a 14-year maintenance overhaul in march of 2010 . those overhauls involve stripping the plane to its frame and going over every centimeter looking for corrosion or cracks but inspectors rarely look under the lap joints where this was found. a former chief for the f.a.a. says it's stunning how quickly this crack turned into an emergency.

    >> this is the worst decompression pilots plan for. getting down as quickly as you can.

    >> reporter: after cancelling several hundred flights over the weekend southwest cancelled another 70 today as it continued inspecting its planes. southwest says it hopes to be back to normal service by tomorrow and says the planes the f.a.a. today ordered to be inspected are the planes it has been inspecting, no more. brian?

    >> tom costello in washington tonight.

updated 4/5/2011 2:30:15 PM ET 2011-04-05T18:30:15

The airliner whose roof ripped open 34,000 feet over Arizona has had a busy 15-year life: taking off and touching down more than seven times a day, on average, and possibly developing microscopic cracks in its aluminum skin each time.

Federal aviation officials were preparing to issue an order Tuesday that calls for emergency inspections on 80 U.S.-registered Boeing 737 jetliners with histories similar to that Southwest Airlines jet, which had been pressurized and depressurized 39,000 times before a 5-foot-long hole opened in its fuselage.

The order is aimed at finding weaknesses in the metal exterior, but virtually all of the affected aircraft will have already been inspected by the time the order takes effect.

The safety directive applies to about 175 aircraft worldwide, including 80 planes registered in the U.S., the Federal Aviation Administration said. Of those 80, nearly all are operated by Southwest. Two belong to Alaska Airlines.

Southwest grounded nearly 80 Boeing 737-300s for inspections after its jet leaving Phoenix lost pressure Friday, forcing pilots to make an emergency landing 125 miles away in Yuma. By Monday evening, 64 were cleared to return to the skies. So far, five were found with cracks similar to those found on the Arizona plane.

Southwest said operations were returning to normal after nearly 700 flights were canceled Saturday through Monday.

Toll of takeoffs and landings
Friday's incident, however, raised questions about the impact that frequent takeoffs and landings by short-haul carriers like Southwest put on their aircraft and the adequacy of the inspections.

Cracks can develop from the constant cycle of pressurizing the cabin for flight, then releasing the pressure upon landing.

Since there had been no previous accidents or major incidents involving metal fatigue in the middle part of the fuselage, Boeing maintenance procedures called only for airlines to perform a visual inspection.

But airlines, manufacturers and federal regulators have known since at least 1988 that planes can suffer microscopic fractures. That year, an 18-foot section of the upper cabin of an Aloha Airlines 737-200 peeled away in flight, sucking out a flight attendant.

Story: Why no one was sucked out of Southwest jet

The order is "certainly a step in the right direction," said National Transportation Safety Board member Robert Sumwalt, who is in Yuma with the board's accident investigation team.

The FAA's emergency order will require initial inspections using electromagnetic devices on some Boeing 737 aircraft in the -300, -400 and -500 series that have accumulated more than 30,000 takeoffs and landings. It will require repetitive inspections at regular intervals.

The 15-year-old Southwest jet in Friday's incident had logged 39,000 pressurization cycles, a measurement of the number of takeoffs and landings. That's 7.2 cycles every day for every year it has been in service.

Planes that have 30,000 cycles or have been in service for 15 years are considered about halfway through their useful life.

Boeing Co. said Monday that it will issue guidance this week on how airlines should do checks on the affected airplanes now in service. An estimated 1,800 airplanes, including -300, -400, -500 model 737s, are affected by the aircraft maker's service bulletin.

Southwest officials said the Arizona flight was given a routine inspection on Tuesday and underwent its last so-called heavy check, a more costly and extensive overhaul, in March 2010.

The decompression happened about 18 1/2 minutes after takeoff from Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport when a gash opened above the overhead luggage bins in the middle of the plane. The pilots declared an emergency and briefly considered returning to Phoenix before the cabin crew told them of the extent of the damage, Sumwalt said. No one was seriously hurt.

The voice and data recorders were being examined in Washington.

Some stranded passengers were angry and threatened to switch airlines, but others praised its decision to ground planes as a safety-first precaution.

Well-documented history
Southwest appeared eager to shift blame to Boeing. The airline said it had never been alerted to a potential problem where overlapping panels of aluminum skin are riveted together on the 737-300.

"This is a Boeing-designed airplane. This is a Boeing-produced airplane," Southwest spokeswoman Linda Rutherford said. "It's obviously concerning to us that we're finding skin-fatigue issues."

Boeing officials declined to respond to Rutherford's comments.

Many of the planes that fall under the FAA order don't fall under U.S. auspices. FAA has authority only over U.S. operators, but government aviation agencies in most other countries usually follow FAA's safety directives with their own orders.

Germany's Lufthansa has a fleet of 63 737s, including 33 of the 300 series, but just three are from the same series as the Southwest jet.

The problem of what is known as "widespread fatigue damage" in aging planes has a long, well-documented history.

It became a major safety focus of the FAA and was the subject of congressional hearings after the Aloha Airlines 737-200 accident in April 1988. There were 95 people on board. A flight attendant and seven passengers were seriously injured.

Following the accident, the FAA instituted a new safety regime for older 737s for cracking that includes not only visual inspections, but the use of devices that employ electromagnetic currents to spot fatigue and corrosion.

The agency also began work in 2004 on a rule that would require more detailed inspections and maintenance procedures for other types of aging aircraft, not just the 737. Initially there was opposition from airlines to the new procedures because of the cost involved.

After over six years of work, FAA published a rule requiring the new procedures late last year. It went into effect in January.

It gives manufacturers 18 months to five years, depending upon the plane involved, to develop inspection programs. Airlines and other operators then have another two and a half to six years to implement the inspection requirements.

Bill Voss, president of the Flight Safety Foundation in Alexandria, Va., said an FAA safety order to be issued Tuesday is an acknowledgement that previous inspection procedures were inadequate. "There is no question this was a very serious safety event," Voss said.

That the skin peeled away shouldn't come as a surprise, said Paul Czysz, professor emeritus of aeronautical engineering at St. Louis University.

Czysz said fuselages are designed with a specific stress limit, based on the number of cycles a plane flies. When a fatigue crack emerges, he said, that means the limit is being pushed. The trick is to keep up a rigorous inspection program.

"It's not magic," he said. "It's just basic physics."

Lowy reported from Washington. Associated Press writers David Koenig in Dallas, Joshua Freed in Minneapolis and Scott Mayerowitz in New York and Reuters also contributed to this report.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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