Southwest Planes Under Scrutiny

Monday, April 4, 2011 - 2:38pm

Investigation continues after hole appears in plane mid-flight.

As maintenance teams and federal investigators continue to examine possible issues with southwest airlines fleet of 737-300s the carrier was forced to cancel about 70 flights monday.

Southwest grounded 79 planes for emergency inspections and canceled hundreds of flights over the weekend after a five-foot hole ripped through the fuselage of a jet last Friday, depressurizing the cabin 18-minutes into a flight from Phoenix to Sacramento.

"A preliminary on-site investigation revealed preexisting fatigue along the entire fracture surface," says National Transportation Safety Board member Robert Sumwalt.

Maintenance records show in 2010 crews found ten instances of cracking in the aircraft's frame and 11 more instances of cracked stringer clips designed to hold the plane's skin in place.

Inspectors have found small subsurface cracks in at least three more Southwest jets similar to those that may have caused the tear last friday.

FAA officials stress that is not unusual for a fleet that is 10-to-15 years old, and that the planes are subject to regular investigations.

"Cracks are found and repaired routinely and again most of these failures, these airplanes are designed so that if there is a structural failure it's not catastrophic," says the FAA's Steve Wallace.

No catastrophe, but quite an inconvenience for thousands of passengers dealing with canceled flights.

More than 50 planes have been inspected a returned to service.

Southwest expects to finish the process and be back to a regular flight schedule by Tuesday.

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