Southwest Airlines: Safety is No Joke

Photo from Southwest Airlines

From the inevitable screaming children to a hidden knife in a shoe, many things can go wrong when flying. Yet, in those long moments on the runway before taking off, few would think to pray that the fuselage roof will not open to form a five-foot hole 34,000 feet in the air. Who knew? It seems flying is serious business, even on April Fools Day.

At 3:45pm on April 1, a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 aircraft made an emergency landing in Arizona when a five-foot tear appeared in its fuselage 20 minutes after takeoff. The tear caused a loss of pressurization in the cabin, a potentially deadly scenario. The pilot lowered the plane to 11,000 feet within one minute where there was more oxygen while passengers grabbed at the oxygen masks that immediately fell before them. Headaches, coldness, popped eardrums, and great fright filled the cabin, but in the end, all 118 (light-headed) passengers and personnel on board survived. Only two suffered minor injuries.

Though there was a happy ending, the incident raised questions about the safety of the Boeing 737, which is considered to be an older model at 15 years in the business.

According to Southwest Airlines, the airline “worked with engineers from the Boeing Company to further assess the damage to the aircraft and develop an inspection regimen to look more closely at 79 of its Boeing 737 aircraft which are covered by a set of Federal Aviation Administration Airworthiness Directives aimed at inspections for aircraft skin fatigue.” Despite its high utilization of the planes, Southwest was not found responsible for the incident.

The focus of federal investigators has shifted to a problem in the design and testing of the airplane model. Boeing has acknowledged that a particular joint had failed much earlier than its engineers expected. While Southwest has followed the prescribed visual-only inspections for the model, these evidently do not suffice.

The improved inspection involves a non-destructive test (NDT) in the form of the High-Frequency Eddy current of the aircraft skin, designed to detect any subsurface fatigue in the skin that is not visible to the eye. The process is high-tech and labor-intensive. Mechanics, using a device that sends magnetic signals through metal to detect unseen cracks, scan about 50 feet of the twin metal seams running along the top of each airplane. The task takes two experts in aircraft service about eight hours. Repairs on any fatigue cracks will take a day or two, at most. This should be repeated every 500 flights, which is hefty for an immense airline like Southwest, whose costs stay low due to its high utilization of planes.

Of course, public safety should hold priority. Of the 79 tested airplanes, five airplanes were found to have small, subsurface cracks. This has lead to other airlines throughout the world, from the Scandanavian SAS to Austrialia’s Qantas, to check their planes as well.

Perhaps understandably, Southwest Airlines remains considerably untouched by the negative media. In a Reader’s Choice poll, Southwest Airlines grabbed first place as a favorite airline, nearly doubling the voter tally for JetBlue, which came in second place. Even for Boeing, however, the incident was not tragic. It was merely a warning that, while beauty may pull off the whole ‘it’s what’s inside that counts’ act, safety is sometimes just skin deep.

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