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Tue Mar 27, 2012, 07:06 AM

This is why you keep your seatbelts at all times while flying [View all]

Is Boeing’s 737 an Airplane Prone to Problems?

The plane is America’s most popular model. But aviation experts worry that America’s most popular airplane is prone to cracks in its skin. An investigative report.

At 10:56 p.m. on April 1, last year, Southwest Airlines Flight 812, en route from Phoenix to Sacramento with 118 passengers aboard, was completing its climb to its cruise altitude of 36,000 feet, above the small town of Blythe, Calif. An air-traffic controller at Los Angeles Center had just acknowledged a routine call from the pilot. But within a minute or so of that exchange, the controller became aware that Flight 812 was in some kind of trouble. The messages were garbled until, finally, he heard the pilot clearly: “declaring an emergency we lost the cabin.”

Over the years, the Boeing 737 has been the world’s most popular airliner for intercity routes. One takes off or lands every 2.5 seconds. Its accident rate, compared with other aircraft, is relatively low: one for every 2.5 million hours flown. Even 45 years after the first 737 flew, airlines are so hungry for the latest model 737s that Boeing can barely meet the demand.

The trouble is, if the skin of the airplane is weakened, the pressurized air in the cabin will always find that weak point and attempt to escape. (When smoking was allowed on airplanes, inspectors looking for nascent failures in the skin could spot them as rings of nicotine deposits left as air leaked out). There are two consequences of skin failure: either a rapid decompression, as in the case of the two Southwest flights, during which the crew are able to retain control and make a rapid descent to a safe landing, or an explosive decompression, where the structural failure is extensive, instantaneous, and fatal.

There are two important safeguards that stand between safety and disaster: technology on the one hand and airline safety checks on the other. And the problem is that as the technology of fuselage design has evolved over several decades, the 737’s has not. As a result, the final responsibility for our safety has moved from Boeing to the maintenance and safety checks carried out by the airlines and supervised by the FAA. So far this final safety net has mostly worked—the flaws have been caught before they caused a fatal crash. But that’s no cause for complacency: an aging design with chronic problems remains our most frequently flown plane today.


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Reply This is why you keep your seatbelts at all times while flying [View all]
liberal N proud Mar 2012 OP
Evasporque Mar 2012 #1
backscatter712 Mar 2012 #2
FirstLight Mar 2012 #3
Blue_Tires Mar 2012 #5
HopeHoops Mar 2012 #4
Blue_Tires Mar 2012 #6
liberal N proud Mar 2012 #8
snooper2 Mar 2012 #7