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Boeing, Southwest Seek Delay In Plane Inspections

Tue, 07/03/2012 - 2:24pm

DALLAS (AP) — Boeing Co. and Southwest Airlines Co. have asked federal officials for more time to inspect certain passenger jets for cracks in the frame while a manufacturer produces more spare parts.

The aircraft maker notified airlines last October that cracks were found in one of its Boeing 717s. In May the Federal Aviation Administration proposed requiring inspections, and repairs if needed, to prevent a catastrophic breakup of a plane's frame.

Southwest, whose AirTran subsidiary uses most of the 717s flown in the U.S., asked the FAA last month for more time to inspect and repair the planes because Boeing had no repair kits in stock and faced a 90-day reorder period, which the airline called "unacceptable." Southwest said it faced "an operational and economical impact" if forced to ground planes, and it asked the FAA to hold off until Boeing builds up its stock of repair kits and replacement parts.

Boeing asked the FAA for up to 90 more days to review its October service bulletin after learning that cracks were found on a second 717 that had flown even fewer flights than the jet that prompted the first notice. The operators of the planes were not identified.

Southwest acquired 88 of the 717s when it bought AirTran last year. But Southwest decided it didn't want the 117-seat jets, which are smaller than the Boeing 737s in its fleet.

Delta Air Lines Inc. announced in May that it planned to start leasing the 717s next year. Final details of that deal are still being worked out. Delta spokesman Trebor Banstetter said Tuesday that the approval of a tentative labor contract with pilots last week clears the way for the airline to add the planes, which will replace inefficient 50-seat regional jets in Delta's fleet.

The FAA said its proposed inspection order would cover 129 planes registered in the U.S. The FAA estimated that inspections would be a minor expense but replacement of frame parts could cost up to $98,000 per plane.

The constant cycle of pressurizing the cabin after takeoff and depressurizing it after landing can cause metal fatigue. The FAA said it has received many reports of cracks in McDonnell Douglas MD-80-series aircraft, which have a similar design to the 717 in the area over the wings.

In April 2011, a Southwest Airlines pilot had to make an emergency descent after a hole ripped open in the roof of his Boeing 737, causing the loss of air pressure in the passenger cabin as the plane flew high over New Mexico. A similar incident happened to another Southwest 737 in 2009. After the 2011 emergency, Southwest found cracks in the aluminum skin of several other 737s.

The request for a delay in inspecting the 717s was previously reported by Aviation Week.

Boeing shares rose $1.09 to close at $74.27 on Tuesday. Southwest shares fell 3 cents to close at $9.28.

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