Southwest Airlines grounded 81 airplanes on Saturday after a piece of the fuselage on one of its Boeing 737s ripped open during a flight the day before, leaving a hole in the cabin ceiling and rapidly depressurizing the aircraft.
“We’re taking them out of service to inspect them over the next few days,” Whitney Eichinger, a Southwest spokeswoman, said Saturday. Ms. Eichinger said they would be “looking for the same type of aircraft skin fatigue.”
The Southwest plane, a 15-year old Boeing 737-300, was sailing along at 36,000 feet on Friday afternoon en route to Sacramento from Phoenix when passengers heard an explosion. The Associated Press reported that one woman described it as “gunshot-like.”
Oxygen masks were released, and two people, a passenger and a flight attendant, passed out as the pilot descended to make an emergency landing at military base in Yuma, Ariz.
Nobody was seriously injured, Ms. Eichinger said. The Federal Bureau of Investigationtold The Associated Press that there was no reason to suspect terrorism. The 81 planes the company grounded were all 737-300s.
All 118 passengers on board Flight 812 chose to continue on to their destination Friday evening aboard a replacement jet, Ms. Eichinger said.
Pictures of the airplane show that a flap of the aircraft’s skin near the overhead baggage compartments was peeled back.
“You can see completely outside,” one passenger, Brenda Reese, told The Associated Press. “When you look up through the panel, you can see the sky.”
In a separate episode on Friday, an American Airlines flight from Reagan National Airport in Washington to Chicago made an emergency landing in Dayton, Ohio, after two flight attendants told the captain they were feeling dizzy. Jim Faulkner, a spokesman for American Airlines, said they were investigating whether the plane had pressurized improperly. No other planes had been taken out of service.
Southwest Airlines’ fleet is made up entirely of Boeing 737s, said James E. Hall, a former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, and the company works its airplanes especially hard, scheduling flights with very quick turnaround times.
“They pound their airplanes daily,” Mr. Hall said.
Two years ago, Southwest faced a similar episode when a hole ripped open in a plane’s fuselage and forced an emergency landing on a flight bound for Baltimore. Earlier that year, Southwest was fined $7.5 million for safety violations by the Federal Aviation Administration.
In 1988, a flight attendant was swept to her death and scores of passengers were injured when an Aloha Airlines Boeing 737 suffered a 20-foot rupture in its fuselage during an inter-island flight in Hawaii.
The flight, carrying 89 passengers and a crew of five from Hilo to Honolulu, was at 24,000 feet when the tear occurred.
The pilots sent an emergency message to air traffic controllers and then guided the badly damaged twin-engine aircraft to a safe landing at the Kahului airport on the island of Maui. The right under-wing engine had been knocked out of commission by debris from the fuselage section that ripped away.
Though one flight attendant was swept from the plane, passengers held on to a second attendant to keep her from being pulled out. Sixty passengers were injured.
Despite Friday’s episode, Mr. Hall said, “My experience with Southwest is that they have a good safety program.”
He added: “But the skin of the aircraft is like human skin. Any type of puncture is serious.”
By ELIZABETH A. HARRIS - NY Times