FAA to Order Fuselage Checks on Certain 737s

The FAA will issue an emergency directive Tuesday that will require operators of specific Boeing 737 models to conduct initial and repetitive electromagnetic inspections for cracks in the fuselage.

The move comes days after a five-foot tear opened up mid-flight in the roof of Southwest Airlines plane bound from Arizona to California on Friday.

The FAA order would impact about 175 aircraft worldwide. Of those, 80 are U.S.-registered airplanes, almost all of which are operated by Dallas-based Southwest Airlines.

“Safety is our No. 1 priority,” said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “Last Friday’s incident was very serious and could result in additional action depending on the outcome of the investigation.”

The order will require inspections using electromagnetic, or eddy-current, technology in specific areas of the fuselage of older 737s with a high number of takeoffs and landings.

A news release issued by the FAA on Monday said the directive will require testing of specific areas of the fuselage on 737 aircraft in the -300, -400 and -500 series with more than 30,000 flight cycles. The directive will then require repetitive inspections at regular intervals.

“The FAA has comprehensive programs in place to protect commercial aircraft from structural damage as they age,” said FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt. “This action is designed to detect cracking in a specific part of the aircraft that cannot be spotted with visual inspection.”

Southwest officials said the plane in Friday's flight was given a routine inspection on Tuesday and underwent its last so-called heavy check, a more costly and extensive overhaul, in March 2010.

After the midair incident, Southwest grounded nearly 80 Boeing 737-300s for inspections. By Monday evening, 64 were cleared to return to the skies, but three were found with cracks similar to those found on the Arizona plane.

The grounding caused about 600 flight cancellations over the weekend and another 70 on Monday. Southwest expected to have nearly all of its grounded planes back in the air by late Tuesday.

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