Southwest Inspects Its Jets

Baltimore-bound Jet Forced To Land In W.va. After A Hole Developed In Its Roof

July 15, 2009|By Jamie Smith Hopkins, Liz F. Kay and Andrea K. Walker | Jamie Smith Hopkins, Liz F. Kay and Andrea K. Walker,jamie.smith.hopkins@baltsun.com

As federal aviation safety officials investigated Tuesday why a Baltimore-bound jet was forced into an emergency landing by a football-size hole in its passenger cabin, Southwest Airlines said it found no other problems in a mass inspection of its planes.

The Boeing 737-300 took off in Nashville, Tenn., and landed safely in West Virginia about 5 p.m. Monday after the 1-foot-by-1-foot hole opened up in the rear of the aircraft. The National Transportation Safety Board sent two investigators to the scene and could issue a preliminary report about the incident as soon as next week, said spokesman Keith Holloway. But it might be a year before the board issues any conclusions about what caused the fuselage hole.

The landing comes four months after the Federal Aviation Administration levied a $7.5 million civil penalty against Southwest for failing to perform inspections for fuselage fatigue cracks.

The Boeing 737-300, which seats 137, makes up about a third of the carrier's fleet. Southwest spokeswoman Whitney Eichinger said the airline inspected all 200 Monday night and Tuesday morning out of "caution" to make sure there weren't any problems with the other planes. The company described them as "walk-around" visual inspections.

"We did not find anything from that," Eichinger said. "There were no other issues with any of the 300s."

Columbia resident Adam Baddock, returning to Maryland on that plane, was listening to music on his iPhone when he felt "this great burst of wind." It wasn't until they arrived at the airport in Charleston that Baddock discovered "a hole had popped open dead-center in the roof, right in front of the tail."

"Really, until we landed, none of us up front knew the extent," he said. "Ignorance is bliss would apply here. I was fully under the impression, 'Oh, we're going to be fine.' "

Les Dorr, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration, said his agency is also examining the aircraft to "see if we can determine if there are any broader safety actions that we might have to order."

Mary F. Schiavo, who was inspector general of the U.S. Department of Transportation from 1990 to 1996, thinks it should be a "wake-up call" for Southwest, the dominant airline at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.

She noted the civil penalty Southwest has to pay for neglecting to inspect 46 planes for fuselage fatigue cracking. The planes - 737s - had been flown nearly 60,000 times without the mandatory inspections between June 2006 and March 2007, the FAA said. Then, when Southwest discovered the inspections had not been done, it flew the jets an extra 1,451 times over the course of nine days, the agency alleged.

Fatigue cracks were later found on six of those planes, the FAA alleged. The agency, which originally wanted to fine Southwest $10.2 million, said in a 2008 statement that "the civil penalty reflects the serious nature of those deliberate violations."

In the settlement agreement, struck in March, Southwest agreed to make changes to its inspections oversight. The airline also acknowledged that its penalty could double to $15 million if it did not make the safety improvements.

Dorr, the FAA spokesman, said Tuesday that "it's impossible to speculate at this point" whether this week's fuselage problem will have any impact on the settlement agreement, "since we don't know what caused the problem."

The 737-300 forced to make an emergency landing Monday was last inspected in January, with no problems found, Eichinger said. Schiavo, who now works as an aviation attorney with the law firm Motley Rice, said Southwest has a "punishing schedule for its fleet," putting its planes into the air five or six times a day.

"Thank heaven no one was hurt," she said. "Whenever you have a rapid decompression, it is a situation where it does put the structural integrity of the plane at jeopardy."

Baddock, the Columbia resident on the Monday flight, said he didn't immediately realize what the problem was because he was sitting at the front. The oxygen masks popped down. Then the pilot told passengers over the intercom that the cabin had lost pressure and they were deciding whether to make an emergency landing or to continue on to their destination.

Baddock, 25, an industrial engineer, said he was relaxed "because it seemed like the plane was stable, even though we could tell, obviously, there was a major issue."

He said he and others began the flight as usual - by zoning out during the safety instructions. Not so when they boarded the new flight for Baltimore.

"Everyone definitely paid attention to the safety briefing at that point," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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