Southwest expects to run close to full schedule

Airline continues plane inspections after fuselage tear, other cracks found

April 04, 2011|By Yeganeh June Torbati and Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun

Southwest Airlines expects to run its full schedule Tuesday after three days with hundreds of canceled flights following an incident Friday in which the metal surface of a plane burst open during flight and a weekend during which small cracks were found on other planes.

The airline, Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport's dominant carrier, canceled about 70 flights nationwide Monday, as workers continued inspecting the company's aircraft. About 300 flights were canceled Sunday. The airline has an estimated 3,400 departures a day.

At BWI, airport spokesman Jonathan Dean said about 20 of the airline's flights had been canceled Saturday through Monday. Dean said that on a typical weekday, Southwest has 374 arrivals and departures at the airport, with a somewhat reduced schedule on weekends.

Late Monday afternoon, the airline said it has completed inspections of 67 of the 79 airplanes it voluntarily took out of service over the weekend — finding small subsurface cracks in three and returning 64 of them to service. Southwest said it expects to have the remaining inspections completed in time to run a full schedule Tuesday.

The inspections followed an incident Friday when, shortly after Southwest Flight 812 took off from Phoenix bound for Sacramento, Calif., a portion of the plane's fuselage tore open, resulting in a loss of cabin pressure and forcing an emergency landing.

Meanwhile, the Federal Aviation Administration said it will issue an emergency directive Tuesday requiring operators of specific early Boeing 737 models to conduct repeated electromagnetic inspections for fatigue damage. The agency said the inspections will at first involve about 175 aircraft worldwide, including 80 of American registry.

"Safety is our No. 1 priority," said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. "Last Friday's incident was very serious and could result in additional action depending on the outcome of the investigation."

The FAA said most of the U.S. aircraft to be inspected are in Southwest's fleet. But Southwest said it had largely finished that task. The airline said its inspections involve a nondestructive test that is designed to detect subsurface fatigue in the metal skin that is not visible to the eye.

In Yuma, Ariz., the National Transportation Safety Board wrapped up the on-scene part of its investigation but was continuing to examine the fuselage from the damaged plane and other evidence.

Board member Robert Sumwalt said an examination of the records of the damaged plane found that all required maintenance was up to date and that "no discrepancies were found." However, he said, the investigation is by no means over.

"I look at this as just the very beginning of the investigation," Sumwalt said. "There's a long way to go and a lot to be done."

Sumwalt said that the board was completing interviews Monday with members of the flight crew from Friday's flight and that the fuselage had been brought to the agency's laboratory in Washington for inspection. He said the board can issue recommendations at any point it determines there is an urgent issue that needs to be addressed.

Earlier, Southwest spokeswoman Christie McNeill said the airline is rebooking passengers on canceled flights onto other Southwest flights.

At BWI, two Monday afternoon Southwest flights to Providence, R.I., and Panama City, Fla., were listed as canceled Monday morning. McNeill said the airline was not releasing information about the impact at specific airports.

Jay Ellenby, chief executive of Safe Harbors Travel Group Inc. in Owings Mills, said three or four of his company's clients were rescheduled after their Southwest flights were canceled over the weekend, with one leaving Monday and another Tuesday. In all cases, Ellenby said, the corporate travel company had managed to rebook clients on other Southwest flights.

His clients, some of whom travel twice a week for business, were comfortable with being rebooked on other Southwest flights using Boeing 737 jets, he said.

"We're just not seeing any kind of real concern out there," Ellenby said. "Nobody's really asked to be on a different aircraft altogether."

The 737 jet is a reliable "workhorse" with a strong safety record that has been used heavily by Southwest in the past, Ellenby said.

Janis Silverman, an agent with Glyndon Travel in Reisterstown, praised Southwest's proactive approach in the face of Friday's incident.

"Other airlines have had problems, and they haven't stopped the other planes from flying until they figure it out," Silverman said. "There's something to be said for Southwest."

jtorbati@baltsun.com

michael.dresser@baltsun.com

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