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The Nation

April 9, 2011

Boeing 737s around the world face new scrutiny

PHOENIX — A terrifying flight emergency caused by a fuselage hole 34,000 feet over the Arizona desert is focusing attention on the hundreds of older-model 737s around the world that could be similarly vulnerable.

A 5-foot section of the passenger cabin roof of a 15-year-old Boeing 737-300 tore off April 1, forcing the Southwest Airlines flight to make an emergency landing.

None of the 118 people aboard was seriously injured, but light-headed passengers were banged around the cabin and had to quickly put on overhead oxygen masks as pilots made a rapid descent.

The planes will now be subjected to repeated examinations as the problem revealed by tiny, hard-to-find stress fractures in the aluminum skin resonates through the world's 737 fleet for years to come.

The Boeing 737 is workhorse of international aviation. Airlines and governments are giving the planes a closer look and taking swift action.

Japan, Indonesia, South Korea and others ordered airlines to beef up inspections. Scandinavian airline SAS is performing similar checks on some of its 737s. Qantas Airlines in Australia is checking four of its planes and Air New Zealand is looking at 15. Airlines said the inspections have not disrupted air travel.

Southwest and Continental Airlines have the most planes on the list of 737-300s, 737-400s and 737-500s prone to the fuselage ruptures, but a large number of the planes are owned by overseas carriers. UTAir in Russia, Garuda Airlines in Indonesia, Air New Zealand and three major carriers in China are among the biggest. Alaska Airlines has 17.

Southwest finished inspecting all of its affected planes by Tuesday. They found five that had cracks in the same lap joint that tore open during last week's flight, and were working with Boeing to make repairs. Alaska Airlines is going a step beyond a Federal Aviation Administration directive this week that ordered inspections when the planes reach a 30,000 takeoffs and landings; the airline will inspect all its planes in the coming weeks.

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