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James T. Crouse
James T. Crouse
Attorney • (919) 861-0500

Flawed Maintenance System Possible In Light of SWA Fuselage Cracking

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Regarding the partial fuselage structural failure of one of its Boeing 737’s on Saturday, Southwest’s chief operating officer, said in a statement:

"Prior to the event regarding Flight 812, we were in compliance with the FAA-mandated and Boeing-recommended structural inspection requirements for that aircraft. What we saw with Flight 812 was a new and unknown issue.”

This is wrong. As discussed in depth on our Aviation Safety Blog, fatigue cracking of aircraft skins has been known ever since metal was first used to cover an aircraft skeleton. More importantly, Southwest should know this better than anyone. Just two years ago, in July 2009 Southwest Airlines Flight 2294 – a Boeing 737-300- had a foot-long hole open in the top of the airliner at 30,000 feet, forcing an emergency landing in West Virginia. Also in 2009, the airline was fined $7.5 million by the FAA for thousands of flights where airliners were used that had not undergone required inspections for fuselage cracks.

It is terrifying to think that neither the FAA regulations nor the Boeing maintenance and inspection requirements were sufficient to describe procedures by which this flaw could have been detected. Fatigue cracks and aircraft structural flaws have been around for years—since we left wood and fabric behind in aircraft design and manufacture. The reasons for these metallurgical phenomena are well known, especially in the age of aircraft pressurization.

It was not so long ago—1988—that Aloha Airlines Flight 243, Boeing 737-200, lost a major portion of its roof and killed a flight attendant. Months later, in 1989, United Boeing flight 811, a Boeing 747, lost a 12 x 25 section of its fuselage over the Pacific, killing nine and injuring twenty-three.

These three aircraft have a vital factor in common (besides being made by Boeing), age—they were 15 years old (Southwest) 19 years old (Aloha) and 19 years old (United). Unlike automobiles, age on aircraft is not necessarily a bad thing—it proves design concepts, maintenance and inspection procedures, etc. But it is astonishing that after the high-profile fuselage separations which occurred in recent memory, someone at the FAA or Boeing did not think that fatigue issues in aging commercial passenger transport aircraft skins were important enough to address by regulation or inspection procedure, respectively.

One day, we will not be so lucky. A structural fatigue problem will bring down a commercial jetliner—if those responsible do not take action.