Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Southwest Airlines 737-700 N791SW as delivered...
Southwest’s Troubles Aren’t Over

Apr. 4 2011 - 5:09 pm


After Friday’s much-publicized mid-flight fuselage hole and depressurization scare, Southwest Airlines is still struggling with maintenance issues, as well as a public relations nightmare. As you’ll recall, a five-foot hole was ripped in the ceiling of a Southwest Boeing 737 flying from Phoenix to Sacramento, forcing an unscheduled landing at a Marines air base in Arizona.

Though no one was seriously hurt, Southwest grounded 300 flights over the weekend to look for stress cracks similar to the one that caused Friday’s hole, and 70 more flights on Monday. Adding to the company’s woes, the New York Times reported that after a process of inspecting some of the fleet’s 737 aircraft, a third plane was found to have the same type of stress fractures. This follows a 2008 FAA fine of $10.2 million for Southwest’s failure to follow inspection guidelines, even allowing six planes to fly that the company knew had stress cracks.

Salon’s Patrick Smith, a pilot himself and author of the terrific airplane-related column “Ask the Pilot,” is also on the case, pointing out the ways in which journalists can get these types of stories wrong, while unfairly playing up the dangers of such incidents.

Smith says that while “a hole in the airplane is always serious,” Friday’s incident wasn’t particularly dangerous. He admits that mid-flight incidents such as this one can lead to explosive decompression, or in rare instances, “a small crack or fracture can propagate to the point of large-scale structural fracture.” But in this case decompression wasn’t explosive, but gradual, and the pilots were able to guide the plane down to the 10,000-foot ceiling called for in decompression episodes, and the plane was able to make a safe emergency landing at the Arizona base.

That’s not to say that maintenance failures can’t lead to catastrophic incidents, or that the FAA shouldn’t look into this particular fuselage tearing, just that the media hype over “harrowing” landings or explosions that “rocked the cabin” may have been overblown. Smith’s cool-headed assessments of in-flight scares and emergencies are always a calming curative to worst-case scenario fantasies – something to remember the next time your flight is punctuated by a violent series of turbulence-related bumps and drops.

Smith himself has survived two decompression incidents in one day, and while these types of failures can be frightening, only two plane crashes have been definitely attributed to fuselage stress fractures. Which should provide some measure of comfort if you’re ever traveling over the continental U.S., and a large hole is suddenly torn from the ceiling – insofar as anything can provide comfort in that situation.
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