A Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 waits to take off at Chicago's Midway Airport as another lands.(Photo: Charles Rex Arbogast, AP)
WASHINGTON -- The Federal Aviation Administration is ordering $5
million in new inspections for Boeing 737s in response to a hole larger
than a football that was torn in the roof of an aging Southwest Airlines
plane during a flight in July 2009.
The order, which will be
published Wednesday in the Federal Register, calls for repetitive
inspections for cracking in the top of the fuselage of 109 planes in the
300, 400 and 500 series. Most of these models are flown by Southwest in
The more-thorough inspections for those planes are
projected to cost up to a total of $5.2 million, and additional repairs
could cost $17,765 per plane, according to the FAA.
In a statement
Monday, the FAA says the agency "always evaluates the effectiveness of
our safety improvements." The latest directive is "to reduce risk
further and assure continued safe operation," the agency says.
FAA reported no incidents involving the same fixtures since 2009 and
the manufacturer, Boeing Co., completed hundreds of inspections
worldwide "with few findings," according to a company spokesman.
is part of the long-standing process through which airplane
manufacturers, operators and regulators work together to continue the
safety of the world's jetliners at the highest levels," says Miles
Kotay, a Boeing spokesman.
The directive is the third of four that
FAA is developing in response to the 2009 incident involving Southwest
flight 2294 from Nashville to Baltimore, which made an emergency landing
in Charleston, W.Va.
This incident was similar to Southwest
flight 812 from Phoenix to Sacramento that made an emergency landing in
Yuma, Ariz., in April 2011 after a 5-foot hole opened in the roof of
that plane. However, the 2009 incident involved a different kind of
joint than the one involved in the skin peeling back in the 2011
Both Southwest flights landed without serious injuries.
But safety inspectors take the problem seriously because crewmembers
and passengers can be sucked out of planes, which are pressurized like
balloons in flight, if they decompress suddenly.
pressurization with the aircraft going up and down in cycles, eventually
there will be some fatigue that will set in," says Kevin Hiatt,
president of the Flight Safety Foundation. "That's why they're taking
extra precautions to take a look at this again."
In the Charleston
incident, a triangular hole measuring 17.4 inches by 11.5 inches by 8.6
inches opened in the top of the plane near the tail, according to the
investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board. The 737-300
had been through more than 42,000 flights at that point.
were startled by a loud bang and could see through the hole that opened
in the ceiling at 34,000 feet. Air masks dropped for people to breathe
before the pilot landed quickly.
FAA says the latest order was
prompted by additional reports of cracking in joints around the crowns
of planes. The goal is to "detect and correct fatigue-cracking of the
fuselage skin, which could cause the fuselage skin to fracture and fail,
and result in rapid decompression of the airplane."
calls for one of several types of microscopic inspections of the planes,
in an effort to find flaws without actually taking the planes apart.
The directive also calls for repetitive inspections of loose fasteners,
with replacements as necessary. And the order also calls for
installation of straps that reinforce sections of the fuselage skin.
are very, very well engineered," says Hiatt of the Flight Safety
Foundation. "Fortunately, we have a process in place with air worthiness
directives where we can head off problems before they begin."
While the Southwest passengers landed safely, others haven't been as lucky when planes decompress in flight:
Feb. 24, 1989, nine people were sucked out of a United Airlines 747
when its cargo door broke loose after taking off from Honolulu.
April 28, 1988, Flight attendant C.B. Lansing was thrown from an Aloha
Airlines 737-200, which investigators say nearly broke apart.
22, 1980, two passengers died when a Saudi Arabian Airlines Lockheed
L-1011 suffered decompression near Qatar because a wheel on the landing
gear exploded, ripping a hole in the bottom the plane.
1973, a passenger was sucked out the shattered window of a National
Airlines Douglas DC-10 when its engine exploded near Albuquerque.