Southwest Airlines grounds dozens of jets

March 12, 2008 8:02:22 PM PDT
Southwest Airlines grounded dozens of planes on Wednesday for safety checks that should have been done last year. Some of the 737's are back in the air, but the move caused delays throughout the system, including Oakland.

We always think that planes could fly forever, but of course they are subject to stress, and that means cracks. That is what the inspection is all about. Those safety inspections going on today mean that they are causing delays and cancellations.

A warning sign greeted passengers on five flights at Oakland international, three flights in San Jose, but none in San Francisco.

Planes had been grounded.

Fourty-four of them were taken out of service for checks because southwest had missed required safety inspections of some planes for cracks.

That has caused the FAA to fine them more than $10 million and placed the airline under a microscope, similar to the electronic inspections the planes have been going through today. It's the same technique Boeing engineers use.

"This particular test is looking for hairline skin cracks and its in a very same portion of the aircraft and can be done in 90 minutes," said Southwest Corporation Communications Director Ginger Hardage.

That this has happened comes as a surprise to ABC7's Aviation Expert Ron Wilson.

"Of any airline that would neglect maintenance, southwest would be last on the list as far as I'm concerned," said ABC7 Aviation Analyst Ron Wilson.

The FAA says Southwest flew the planes on more than 59,000 flights before the airline realized it hadn't conducted the inspections; pressure causes cracks.

"When you pressurize an airplane it's like blowing up a balloon. The airplane expands, puts stress on the fasteners, skin, and distress on other parts of the aircraft," said Wilson.

Constant take offs and landings take a toll. We witnessed that in 1988 when a section of an Aloha Airlines 737 peeled off at 24,000 feet, killing a flight attendant. Metal fatigue was blamed.

Wilson says low cost airlines are safe, but this serves up a warning.

"The airlines don't want to have something like this on their records. Publicizing it may mean passengers may think about flying an airline that doesn't do it maintenance on time," said Wilson.

"That would cause me a little concern. Yeah I did not know, but I'm still going to get on the plane," said Bernie Lutz from Orinda.

"That is kind of scary. It's a good thing they're taking care of it," said Caitlin Croning from Texas.

"I'm not concerned. I really don't need reassurance from the airlines. I trust what they have to do," said Elijah Encerti from Walnut Creek.

Twenty-five planes are back in service and the rest should be back online by Thursday. There has been some speculation and some criticism that the FAA and Southwest are a little too cozy. FAA inspectors are going before the House Transportation Committee next month to answer questions.