FAA Chief Orders Review of Older-Jet Checks After 737 Cracks

The Federal Aviation Administration chief ordered a review of his agency’s oversight program for aging aircraft after the fuselage of a Southwest Airlines Co. jet ruptured in flight last week.

“Friday’s event was very serious,” FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt told the U.S. House of Representatives Appropriations Committee’s transport panel today in Washington.

The review will examine whether the FAA is “asking the right questions” and using the best data in its program designed to ensure that the oldest aircraft flying are safe, he said.

The FAA in November issued a rule giving planemakers five years to establish inspection plans for more than 4,000 older jets registered in the U.S. alone. Airlines then were supposed to have six years to implement the plans, designed to prevent so-called widespread fatigue damage to aircraft.

The FAA and Boeing Co., maker of the 737-300 jet involved in the April 1 incident over Arizona, said yesterday that metal-fatigue inspections must be stepped up on older models of the plane. The aircraft whose hull opened up in midair showed signs of cracking far earlier than the Chicago-based manufacturer expected.

737 Classics

Cracks on the so-called 737 Classics that were built between 1993 and 1999 weren’t predicted to occur until “much later,” after 60,000 cycles of takeoffs and landings, Paul Richter, Boeing’s chief project engineer for older jets, said yesterday. Southwest’s plane will be 15 years old in June and had flown 39,781 cycles.

“This is something that was not forecast and happened in an area that we’re going to take another look at,” Babbitt said in an interview.

While 15-year-old planes aren’t among the oldest in the U.S. airliner fleet, Dallas-based Southwest flies its jets more often as part of its effort to curb costs and fares. North American carriers have more planes that are 20 years or older than any other region in the world, according to data from aviation research firm Ascend.

Southwest, the world’s biggest discount carrier, is the largest operator of the 737 Classics that were built with the same kind of lap joints as the one that ruptured last week, Ascend data show. Southwest has 90 of those planes, followed by United Continental Holdings Inc. with 32 and China Southern Airlines Co. with 24. General Electric Co.’s GECAS leasing unit manages the largest fleet of affected planes, with 103.

175 Planes

Only about 175 planes worldwide that have flown more than 30,000 flights need to be checked this week, though Boeing said eventually about 570 aircraft will need to be examined for cracking. The company changed the design for more recent models called Next-Generation 737s starting in 2000.

Boeing has built almost 6,700 737s since the plane first flew in 1967 and has a backlog for more than 2,100 more. The single-aisle jet, along with Airbus SAS’s A320, is the backbone of the aviation industry, used chiefly on domestic and short-haul flights.

Carriers with 737 Classics around the world said they’re inspecting their planes, including: Deutsche Lufthansa AG and its BMIbaby unit; Malaysian Airline System Bhd.; SAS AB; Norwegian Air Shuttle AS; four Japanese carriers including Japan Airlines Corp. and All Nippon Airways Co.; Alaska Air Group Inc.; and Air New Zealand Ltd. Lufthansa and other carriers said the work can be done during scheduled ground time to avoid flight disruptions.

Checking for Cracks

One inspector on each side of the plane, using electromagnetic technology with a handheld instrument, can check a 50-foot section of the top fuselage for cracks in about eight hours per jet, Boeing said. Airlines that find cracks will need to collaborate with Boeing on how best to fix their aircraft, and will probably need to cut out and replace sections of the fuselage.

United Continental, US Airways Group Inc., China Southern, British Airways Plc and London-based Jet2 said their 737 Classics don’t meet the criteria set out by the FAA for requiring urgent checks.

Editors: Donna Alvarado, John Lear

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