Southwest Safety Crisis Part of a Larger Pattern of Improper Maintenance?

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Last week we asked if Southwest, once master of airline customer service, was finally losing its luster. Today many others are asking if the airline is even safe to fly.

Southwest canceled hundreds of flights this weekend after a hole appeared in one of its aircraft on Friday. The carrier elected to inspect all of its aircraft following the incident, which is not the first of its kind at Southwest.

In a release, the airline said, "Southwest Airlines Flight 812, the scheduled 3:25 pm departure from Phoenix to Sacramento, diverted to Yuma, Ariz due to loss of pressurization in the cabin. Upon safely landing in Yuma, the flight crew discovered a hole in the top of the aircraft." At least one passenger and flight attendant were treated for minor injuries, but no hospitalization was needed in either case. On Saturday, the airline canceled 300 flights in order to affect the subset of planes singled out for inspection. The incident involved a Boeing 737-300, and it's not clear if the problem is limited to Southwest 737-300s, or if similar aircraft operated by other airlines may have the same issue.

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The airline canceled another 300 flights Sunday, and said 19 planes had undergone "intense inspections" and were returned to service. Two planes, however, were determined to have "subsurface cracks" in the fuselage. Those planes will need to be repaired. As of Sunday, 79 planes still needed to be inspected, meaning delays would stretch into the week.

If this story sounds familiar, it's because nearly the same thing happened in July 2009. In that incident, a hole opened up when the plane was at around 10,000 feet, and the pilot had to make an emergency landing. An investigation later blamed the hole on metal fatigue. Southwest was previously hit with a proposed $10.2 million fine in 2008 for failing to properly inspect planes for fuselage cracks, and ended up paying $7.5 million.

As for why Southwest seems to be having this same problem time after time, pilot and columnist Patrick Smith suggests it might have something to do with Southwest's scheduling: "As to where the hole came from, it was possibly the result of an undetected crack brought on by many thousands of short-haul flights over the life of the airframe.  It's not the force of the landings that stress the fuselage so much as the pressurization cycles.  Imagine a balloon being constantly inflated and deflated to the point where its skin becomes weak. Granted airplanes are built with these stresses in mind, and undergo careful fatigue inspections, but every so often a crack goes undetected."

With any luck, the investigation will turn up some answers.

UPDATE: The Associated Press reports that "three more Southwest Airlines jetliners have small, subsurface cracks that are similar to the ones suspected in the fuselage tear on another of its planes. Federal aviation officials are considering an order for other airlines to inspect their aircraft."

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