Southwest Airlines passengers, especially those headed cross-country, would be wise to check the status of their flight Sunday after the airline grounded 79 of its Boeing 737-300s due to a depressurization emergency that occurred Friday when a hole developed in the overhead section of the fuselage.
The 79 planes grounded are older, long-range jets that have not had their aluminum skins replaced, and delays and flight cancellations were likely to continue Sunday. About 300 Southwest flights were canceled nationwide Saturday.
Dozens of fights were cancelled at the Bay Area's three airports on Saturday with more possible cancellations Sunday.
Federal records show cracks were found and repaired a year ago in the frame of the Southwest Airlines Boeing 737-300 that had the problem Friday.
An Associated Press review of Federal Aviation Administration records of maintenance problems for the 15-year-old plane showed that in March 2010 at least eight instances were found of cracking in the aircraft frame, which is part of the fuselage, and another half-dozen instances of cracked stringer clips, which help hold the plane's skin on. The records showed that those problems were repaired.
No one was hurt in Friday's accident, though the emergency scared many of the passengers. The pilot descended precipitously from about 34,500 feet to make an emergency landing in Yuma, Ariz.
Taking 79 planes out of Southwest's fleet of about 170 Boeing 737-300s is expected to trigger cancellations or delays Sunday, as the airline scrambles to find replacement aircraft. Southwest operates a total of about 540 aircraft.
Southwest said its engineers, as well as experts from Boeing, will inspect all the 737s that have not had their skins replaced. They ``are covered by a set of FAA airworthiness directives aimed at inspections for aircraft skin fatigue,'' according to an airline statement issued Saturday. ``Those aircraft will be inspected over the course of the next several days at five locations.''
A roughly 3-foot section of aluminum failed on the Phoenix-to-Sacramento flight, causing the cabin to lose pressure in the thin air. Internet video and photos showed a patch of blue sky beyond dangling cables, insulation and jagged metal.