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Airline Safety Checks: Reactive to Mishaps or Problem Prevention?

April 4, 2011 at 6:12 PM EST
Southwest Airlines continued safety inspections Monday after a hole opened in a jet's fuselage last week. Judy Woodruff talks with aviation expert John Goglia for insight.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The fallout from Friday’s event on Southwest Airlines Flight 812 is still being felt.

Today, the plane’s manufacturer, Boeing, said inspections of its 737s should be extended to older models by all airlines. The FAA said that it would issue an emergency safety order to require these special inspections, looking for cracks in the fuselage. All this after Southwest today canceled 70 more flights, on top of 600 canceled over the weekend.

In the wake of Friday’s incident, Southwest Airlines grounded 79 older Boeing 737-300s in its fleet. Today, three of them were found to have small subsurface cracks similar to those suspected of playing a role in the emergency landing of Flight 812.

It was about 18 minutes into that flight from Phoenix to Sacramento when a five-foot section at the top of the plane’s fuselage came apart at a seam. The pilots had to descend quickly from about 36,000 feet and made an emergency landing in Yuma, Ariz. No one was seriously hurt, but passengers say it was a frightening experience.

MAN: Almost passed out. I mean, your ears instantly start to hurt really bad.

MAN: It was scary. I was one row from where the plane blew out. And, you know, we all had that moment when we thought we were — we weren’t sure what was going to happen.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the incident and has sent a section of the jetliner’s roof to Washington for analysis.

ROBERT SUMWALT, National Transportation Safety Board member: We have clear evidence that the skin separated at the lower rivet line.

JUDY WOODRUFF: NTSB officials say the area around the separation revealed extensive cracking that hadn’t been discovered during routine maintenance and probably wouldn’t have been found unless mechanics had specifically looked for it.

The plane itself underwent a weeklong inspection last year. And Federal Aviation Administration records reportedly show that more than 20 cracks in the aircraft’s frame and clips, which hold the skin on, were found and repaired.

But Southwest Airlines has had a history of maintenance problems. In fact, issues with its inspections for fuselage cracking led to a congressional hearing in 2008 and a multimillion-dollar fine by the FAA. The FAA’s then head of aviation safety said Southwest knew there were problems.

NICHOLAS SABATINI, National Transportation Safety Board: That an airline of Southwest’s reputation would ever think that flying passengers in noncompliant aircraft was appropriate is astounding to me. Even more alarming and upsetting to me is that this was done with the implicit consent of one of my aviation safety inspectors.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There have, however, been no allegations of faulty inspections or maintenance with regard to this incident, because checking the area around the tear for cracks is not mandatory for any airline.

But, late this afternoon, the FAA ordered emergency checks of the most heavily used Boeing 737-300s for the kind of cracks found on this plane. Boeing is preparing a service bulletin that will detail what more rigorous inspections should be done.

ROBERT SUMWALT: What will be different now, as a result of the service bulletin that Boeing is coming out with, is that now they will be doing the eddy current inspection on these particular lap joints. Before this accident, it was not believed that the eddy current inspections needed to be done in this section of the airplane.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The investigation into what caused the failure of the fuselage of Flight 812 could take a year.

And we take a closer look now at this roof incident and the questions it raises about airline safety with a former member of the National Transportation Safety Board.

John Goglia has worked in aviation for more than 40 years, and has extensive experience in maintenance and mechanics. He’s now an independent safety consultant who works with commuter airlines.

John Goglia, thank you very much for talking with us.

First off, how significant is this order just issued a few hours — or an hour or so ago by the FAA?

JOHN GOGLIA, former member, National Transportation Safety Board: Well, it’s quite significant in dealing with this particular issue.

What remains unanswered is what is going to happen to the areas adjacent to the damage of the rest of the airplane. Most of our actions today and in the past have been reactive to events that have occurred. And as these airplanes age, at some point, we need to do a complete body scan, if you will, on the fuselage to determine the condition, not just look in the areas where we have had problems before, but to be proactive and look at the entire airplane for a change.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What is it in this specific incident? We — we’re hearing about these microscopic cracks in the second skin, the underlying surface of the airplane, and we’re also hearing that that’s not an area that’s been inspected. Why not?

JOHN GOGLIA: Because we haven’t had any problems there.

You know, the whole maintenance programs of all the airlines and the view from the FAA and the manufacturers has been, wait until you see a problem, and then we will address it.

Well, as we get airplanes that are 15 and more years older, at some point, we need to look at the airplane to say, let’s look and see if we can find out what’s wrong with it before we have a problem. Don’t we do that with our bodies when we go for physicals?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, that was going to be my question, because it’s just logical to think that, as something like an airplane — and we know that there are extensive inspections conducted, but as these fleets get older, as you say, and in particular these older 737s, which we’re told take off and land very often, often on short hops, that they maybe have been subjected to more stress than other planes.

JOHN GOGLIA: Well, certainly, the more cycles the airplane has, the more stress on the fuselage. We have known that for a long time. And that’s a good reason to watch the high — high-cycle-time airplanes and to do vigorous entire fuselage inspections on them to see if there’s any evidence of damage.

I know it’s time-consuming, and I know it’s expensive, but we at least should take the fleet leaders — that is, the airplanes, regardless of who is flying them that have the most time and the most cycles on them — and do this kind of check to see if we can get in front of the cracks and the problems that are occurring.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, John Goglia, again, why shouldn’t haven’t these kinds of checks been done? I heard you say because there hasn’t been a problem before. But in this — just one would think that these inspections would be proactive.

JOHN GOGLIA: They’re reactive. Almost all the inspections that we do today are reactive.

They come out — the manufacturer, when the airplane is new, comes up with a maintenance program. And then it’s added to as the airplane ages. How is it added? It’s added in a reactive way. Something happens, and we add something to it. Then something else happens; then we add something to it again.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, how reassured are you now that we’re told that they’re ordering that all these 737-300s, 400s and 500s I guess of a certain age are going to be taken out and then thoroughly inspected?

JOHN GOGLIA: Well, I — it’s very reassuring that the FAA and the airlines are doing that. The airlines have really stepped up to the plate here. Southwest didn’t wait for the FAA to tell them to do anything. They just did it. It’s very reassuring for the traveling public.

But now we need to go beyond that. We need to look forward and say, what are we going to do to prevent this kind of incident from occurring three feet away from where it did occur that’s in another area of the airplane that we’re not looking at? We need to start reading our own data.

We have an ocean of data on aging aircraft that’s been developed ever since the Aloha airplane accident in 1988. We don’t need to study it. We don’t need to go back and revisit this. We have the data. Let’s determine what it’s going to take to ensure the integrity of our — of the fuselage of our airplanes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And when you say this, are you referring to the — just to the Boeing 737, or to jetliners in general?

JOHN GOGLIA: Jetliners in general, because they’re all faced with the same kinds of problems.

You know, the fuselage of the airplane expands like a balloon, every time you take off and the airplane is pressurized. And then, when you come back down, it relaxes. Well, this stress, expand and contract, expand and contract, over time will cause a fracture.

Did you ever take a piece of metal and bend it back and forth many times, and then it will break? That’s the same principle that we’re talking about here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What would it take to get the kind of inspections you’re talking about right now? What would have to happen for that to take place?

JOHN GOGLIA: The FAA and Boeing would have to mandate it, more the FAA, because it’s going to be an expensive proposition to do that, to map the older fleet of the defects, so that you can use those — that mapping on the younger airplanes to get in front of it. It would take an awful lot of backbone inside the FAA. And I don’t know we have had that kind of backbone in that agency for a while.

JUDY WOODRUFF: John Goglia, for those people who are listening who fly — and a lot of us do — a lot of people fly — how does one know when a plane is safe and when it isn’t? What kinds of questions should the flying public be asking?

JOHN GOGLIA: There’s no questions. I mean, I can’t ask any questions of the airline.

I just know that there’s an awful lot of good people in Southwest, there’s an awful lot of good people in the entire industry that put their heart and soul in making sure the airplane will fly to its destination. And we get caught with surprises and we get caught because of money concerns and to keep the airlines flying.

So, there is a little balance act that those goes on in here. I flew today — or yesterday — excuse me. I am going to be flying on Wednesday. I fly — I average five airplanes a week, and I don’t have any fears at all getting on an airplane.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, John Goglia, we thank you for talking with us and for raising some questions that we all need to continue to look at. Thank you very much.

JOHN GOGLIA: Thank you for having me.