You're probably going to be reading a lot more about the dangers of commercial air travel over the next few days, courtesy of the Southwest Airlines jet that had to make an emergency landing at a military base in Yuma, Arizona after a five foot wide hole opened up in the fuselage last Friday. That's because, as CNN is reporting, the FAA issued a directive late on Monday mandating operators of some 175 older Boeing 737s to conduct inspections for "fatigue damage" (which is what happens when a plane takes off and lands more than 30,000 times, as all of the planes in question have).
Of the 175 planes in question only 80 are registered in the United States, and most of the those are operated by Southwest. The company has already inspected the majority of the impacted planes and has grounded three of them thus far. Inspections are expected to be completed by Tuesday afternoon. As a result, Southwest canceled 70 flights on Monday (in addition to the 700 it canceled over the weekend).
A New York Times report on the FAA directive notes the fact that Southwest, because of its regional focus, typically requires its planes to fly more segments per day than other airlines, which adds to the number of takeoffs and landings.
Southwest insisted that it had done all the required inspections of its aircraft. But the latest incident focused attention on how the carrier uses its planes on up to 12 flight segments a day. Other airlines, which often fly longer routes, typically have six to eight segments for their planes. The plane involved in the incident on Friday had logged 39,000 takeoffs and landings, a relatively high number for a 15-year-old aircraft.
While the Southwest incident may have been helpful in terms of opening the eyes of regulators about the structural issues impacting older 737s, all of this will likely lead to a rash of media stories that declare the skies unsafe, the FAA incompetent, the airlines greedy and the NTSB out to lunch, none of which serve the public good. Just don't say we didn't warn you.