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Southwest Flight 812 not the first to suffer fuselage tearing

April 2, 2011 |  5:44 pm

Southwest Flight 812, which suffered a fuselage rupture and rapid decompression before landing safely Friday, is not the first aircraft in the airline's fleet to experience such problems. 

In 2009, a foot-long hole opened in the top of a jet while it was cruising at 30,000 feet, forcing an emergency landing in West Virginia.

That same year, the airline was fined $7.5 million by the FAA for nearly 60,000 flights for which planes had not undergone required inspections for fuselage cracks.

“Given Southwest’s history, this raises a real concern,” said Jim Hall, an airline safety consultant and former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. “Everyone knows they pound those airplanes hard.”

The structural integrity of aging airline fleets has been an issue since 1988, when cracks caused the roof of an Aloha Airlines Boeing 737 to peel away while on its way to Honolulu. A flight attendant was sucked out of the depressurized craft and dozens of passengers were injured.

The incident led to stricter inspection regulations, but through the years a number of airlines have had incidents where weakened fuselages tore apart in mid-air.

The FAA earlier this year implemented new rules requiring additional structural inspections of Boeing 757 and 737 aircraft. The agency  rejected Southwest’s request for more time to complete inspections, which the company said would require “out-of-sequence maintenance” that would cause “a significant burden.”

Southwest’s fleet of 548 aircraft is made up of Boeing 737s; the plane that tore open Friday is 15 years old, according to FAA records.

Hall said that commercial aircraft used more for short-haul flights common throughout Southwest’s flight schedule are more prone to structural stress than long-haul aircraft.

“They  get pressurized and depressurized on a more frequent basis,” he said.

According to Southwest's website, its fleet has an average age of just over 11 years. Each aircraft flies an average of six flights a day, with an average trip length of 648 miles and average time duration of just under two hours.

-- Mike Anton