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Grounded Southwest planes may fly today

  • Associated Press
  • Published Tuesday, April 5, 2011, at 12:06 a.m.

Southwest Airlines Co. expects to have nearly all of its grounded planes back in the air by late today after checking them for microscopic cracks in the aluminum skin.

That will do wonders for Southwest's schedule, which was plagued by nearly 700 cancellations and many long delays over three days.

It is less clear whether Southwest's reputation will recover as quickly after one of its planes developed a hole in the roof on Friday — the second such incident in three years.

Some stranded passengers were angry with Southwest and threatened to switch airlines, but others praised the company's decision to ground planes as a safety-first precaution. And Southwest did not seem to suffer long, if at all, when this happened in 2009. Lately, traffic on Southwest has grown faster than on other airlines.

Southwest appeared eager on Monday to shift blame to Boeing, manufacturer of the 15-year-old 737-300 that had to make an emergency landing in Arizona after a 5-foot-long tear developed in the roof.

The airline said it had never been alerted to a potential problem where overlapping panels of aluminum skin are riveted together on the 737-300.

"This is a Boeing-designed airplane. This is a Boeing-produced airplane," said Southwest spokeswoman Linda Rutherford. "It's obviously concerning to us that we're finding skin-fatigue issues."

Blaming Boeing, however, is a juggling act for Southwest. The airline may want to deflect criticism, but it would suffer if passengers believe Southwest's planes are not safe. Southwest likely will still have 737-300s in its fleet for several more years.

Boeing officials declined to respond to Rutherford's comments, but the company has plenty at stake. Boeing could wind up in a public spat with its biggest customer, and the legacy of its best-selling plane could suffer a black eye.

Still, it's been 11 years since Boeing delivered the older type of 737 that will be covered by a new federal order on inspections due out today. Newer Boeing planes won't be affected.

Robert Mann Jr., an aviation consultant in Port Washington, N.Y., said Friday's incident would not cause lasting harm to Southwest's reputation, partly because the airline moved quickly to ground and inspect planes that might have the same weakness.

"There was nothing Southwest failed to do or did improperly," Mann said. "This was something no one had seen before."

Southwest grounded 79 planes over the weekend after passengers on the Phoenix flight heard a loud bang and saw sky through a large gash in the roof as the plane cruised at 34,000 feet. The plane made an emergency landing at a military base, and Southwest said no one was seriously injured.

The jet had made nearly 40,000 takeoff and landing cycles.

On Monday, the Federal Aviation Administration said it will require special inspections aimed at finding metal fatigue in some Boeing 737s. The FAA said the order, which will be issued today, will affect about 175 planes worldwide. Of those, 80 are registered in the U.S., and nearly all are operated by Southwest.

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