Southwest
Southwest Airlines is still grounding flights, as the airline is scrambling to ensure the safety of its fleet after the emergency landing of Flight 812. Photo Credit: ZHoover123/Wikimedia Commons/CC-BY-SA

Southwest Airlines, the airline known for keeping fares cheaper than major airlines, has begun canceling a large number of flights. An incident in which a hole was ripped in the fuselage of a plane in-flight resulted in inspections being carried out, and problems have been found. The airline is grounding hundreds of flights to make sure its fleet is safe.

Emergency landing of Southwest flight prompts inspections

On Friday, April 1, after Southwest Airlines Flight 812 departed from Phoenix and headed for Sacramento, a five feet long by one foot wide hole was ripped in the fuselage near the cockpit, according to USA Today. The flight was able to make an emergency landing at a military base near Yuma, Ariz., and fortunately no passengers or crew were harmed. The tear was caused by stress fractures in the aluminum “skin” of the plane, which is part of normal wear and tear in the life of an aircraft. Southwest says that a seam opening up in the skin of a plane is a very rare occurrence, according to Reuters, and a National Transportation Safety Board spokesperson confirmed the plane had undergone heavy inspection in March of 2010.

Hundreds of flights grounded

Southwest grounded 600 flights in the two days following the incident and is expected to ground up to 100 more flights on Monday, April 4. The airline has begun inspecting all aircraft of the same model for similar metal fatigue and possible cracks. The plane in question was a Boeing 737-300, and Southwest owns 171 of them. Southwest is inspecting at least 79 of the 737-300s in its fleet, which is composed of Boeing 737 variants. The 737, according to Bloomberg, is the world’s best selling airliner of all time. Southwest flights are generally of short durations, which means each aircraft has to undergo that many more takeoffs and landings, which are the most stressful events on an aircraft during a flight. The small cracks that led to the hole being ripped in Flight 812 were about a quarter of an inch long and are difficult to detect unless an inspector is looking for them specifically.

Travel costs affected by costs of maintaining planes

Airplanes have to be regularly inspected for problems and are usually taken off the flight line once a year for an in-depth inspection. However, the Federal Aviation Administration is beginning to insist that aircraft have expiration dates. The mechanical and structural stress of take-offs and landings for years on end adds up, but replacing a $30 million aircraft is a hefty undertaking. If airlines are compelled legislatively to buy new airplanes at regular intervals, the cost of air travel will likely rise even more than it has already.

Sources

USA Today: http://www.usatoday.com/money/industries/travel/2011-04-03-Southwest-jet_N.htm?loc=interstitialskip

Reuters: http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/04/04/airlines-southwest-idUSN0320240220110404

Bloomberg: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-04-03/southwest-737-jet-showed-previous-cracking-near-tear-ntsb-says.html

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