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Cracks Ground Southwest Planes, Raise New Questions on Inspections

Southwest is facing new questions on the safety of its fleet. Photo via Flickr Creative Commons user Atomic Taco.

Southwest Airlines is grounding its fleet of Boeing 737-300s for inspection after one of its planes was forced to make an emergency landing Friday with a five-foot hole in the roof of the cabin. The flight, bound for Sacramento, Calif., landed in Yuma, Ariz., and none of the 118 passengers on board were seriously injured.

Though a spokesman said the two incidents were unrelated, another plane was diverted Sunday night in response to a burning smell in the cabin, bringing further attention to the safety of the airline’s fleet.

Spokeswoman Brandy King told the AP Monday morning that Southwest had inspected 33 similar planes and returned them to service. At least two other planes have been found to have similar cracks to those in Flight 812.

Some of the inspected planes have been returned to the flight schedule; Southwest is expected to cancel some 100 flights Monday, fewer than the 600 nixed from the weekend schedule.

In a statement Sunday, Southwest said the problem with Friday’s flight was a new one and that several planes were undergoing intense inspections as a result.

“Prior to the event regarding Flight 812, we were in compliance with the FAA-mandated and Boeing-recommended structural inspection requirements for that aircraft. What we saw with Flight 812 was a new and unknown issue.”

Former NTSB board member John Goglia, now an air safety consultant, told the NewsHour that a crack like this “would indicate inspection methods not up to the task of maintaining airplane in worthy condition.”

While inspections are subject to government oversight, Goglia said airlines are given some leeway by the Federal Aviation Administration to carry them out.

“The airline determines that and they produce a FAA maintenance manual and FAA accepts or rejects it. They accept 99 percent of those submitted, and the airline goes on, and the in-service data tells them if it is accurate. They watch the fleet, and if there are no problems, they figure they developed an inspection process that is adequate,” he said.

In 2008, Southwest and other airlines were among those discussed in a NewsHour report on lapses in the FAA’s oversight of airline safety checks:

We’ll have more on the issue of aging airline fleets on Monday’s NewsHour. Stay tuned.

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