Friday night a Southwest Airlines 737, on a routine flight from Phoenix to Sacramento made an emergency landing at a military base in Yuma, Arizona. The initial reason given was a sudden drop in cabin pressure. But the underlying, and more serious reason, was a large hole in the airline's fuselage.
None of the 118 passengers or five crew members was hurt in the incident, but it led to the grounding of virtually the entire airline's fleet of 737s for immediate inspections of the aircraft.
By Saturday the airline had canceled 176 flights and had delayed at least 444 more. By Monday, Southwest canceled approximately 600 flights while the inspections are ongoing, Reuters reported.
According to the Reuters report, of 79 older Boeing 737-300 planes that were designated for additional inspections after the Friday incident, 33 had been returned to service. According to Southwest, in three other airplanes, the testing did detect small, subsurface cracks which are undergoing further evaluation before those planes are returned to service. Inspections of the remaining aircraft in the sub-fleet (79 total) will continue for the next few days.
An Industry Wake-Up Call
Some of you may remember the incident with Aloha Airlines more than 20 years ago when a 737 flown by Honolulu-based airline literally lost its top in the skies above Hawaii. The plane made a miraculous emergency landing in Maui, with the loss of one life (a flight attendant). That incident was a huge wake-up call for the airline industry because it called into question the real potential for corrosion and advanced metal fatigue on high-cycle planes.
What's a high-cycle plane?
A cycle means a take off or landing. It stands to reason that short-haul planes -- like 737s -- have more cycles than widebody long-haul planes. It's not unusual for a 737 to have six or seven takeoffs or landings in a given day (when a 747 might have only four at most, and in many cases only two).
That constant pressurization (and depressurization) can have a serious impact on the structural integrity of the plane if not regularly monitored for weakness of rivets and welding or in tropical areas (Miami, Hawaii, et al). Signs of corrosion also can lead to structural failure.
After the Aloha incident, the FAA mandated more frequent fuselage inspections by airlines of their high- cycle, narrow-body, short-haul planes. but this most recent incident may cause the FAA to rule for an accelerated inspection program by airlines operating the short-haul airplanes. (And by the way...it SHOULD). The question is how long it will take the FAA to move on revising the procedures and timetables?
What does this mean for Southwest passengers?
While leisure travelers may just have to grin and bear it, business travelers need to book (and pay) for flights on other airlines. This is a definite negative for business fliers.
Southwest does not have interline agreements with other major carriers, so a Southwest ticket cannot be endorsed over to another carrier. While Southwest may offer refunds to those whose flights were delayed or canceled, or will allow you to change your reservations without penalties, it can't fly you out on another airline.
At the moment, many of its planes are out of sequence (rotation) which also means its crews are out of synch as well. It will take between 36 to 48 hours to get everything back into the proper schedule alignment.
We'll await word from the inspectors at the National Transportation Safety Board to see how fast they can determine the probable cause of the gap on that 737 and to see how fast their recommendations are acted upon by the FAA. In the meantime, and even though they have not announced it, my sources tell me that every other airline operator of the 737 is going through a voluntary additional inspection of its 737s using electromagnetic sensors to detect hairline cracks or fractures in the skin or welds.
Do you have to change your travel plans due to the Southwest grounding? I want to hear about it.
- The Real Reason United Grounded its 757s
- Continental Found Guilty in Concorde Crash: Why the Verdict Was Wrong
- Zagat is Right: Southwest is All We Need in an Airline Now