Reacting to the forced landing of a Southwest Airlines jetliner after a hole opened in its fuselage, the head of the Federal Aviation Administration told Congress on Wednesday that he has ordered a review of an agency program that oversees aging commercial aircraft.
FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt testified before the House Appropriations transportation subcommittee that the evaluation would look into whether the agency is asking the right questions and using all available data to ensure that older planes are flying safely.
"Friday's event was very serious," Babbitt told the panel. "I want to make absolutely certain that what we learn from this accident gets incorporated into our requirements for reviewing aging aircraft."
During the last 20 years the FAA has developed an oversight program that has promulgated maintenance and design requirements for older planes to prevent metal fatigue. Babbitt said the program issued additional rules just six months ago to help achieve that goal.
Southwest Flight 812, with 118 passengers on board, made an emergency landing Friday afternoon at Yuma International Airport in Arizona after a riveted lap joint connecting aluminum fuselage panels burst open, causing the cabin to lose pressure and oxygen masks to deploy.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the mishap, which involved a 15-year-old Boeing 737-300 that had made almost 40,000 flights, or more than seven a day.
Aviation and safety experts say the incident might prompt the FAA to increase inspection requirements for older commercial aircraft, the number of which have been growing in airline fleets.
Jim Hall, a safety consultant and former NTSB chairman, said he hoped the ensuing investigation would take a hard look at the adequacy of FAA oversight and how older jetliners are checked for fuselage cracks.
In response to the Southwest incident, the FAA issued a directive Tuesday, ordering airlines to enhance and increase the frequency of inspections for older, heavily used Boeing 737-300s, 400s and 500s after they reach a certain number of flights.
But Robert Ditchey, an aeronautical engineer and former airline maintenance director, said the FAA inspection requirements do not go far enough and are designed to have "a minimal impact" on Southwest.
Instead of merely inspecting limited sections of the outer skin of older Boeing 737s as called for by the directive, Ditchey said Southwest and other airlines should inspect every lap joint on the fuselage.
The checks require an electromagnetic device that can detect tiny cracks — a process that is costly and time consuming.
Although such inspections could take up to a month per plane, it is worth the effort to ensure that the aircraft are safe, said Ditchey, who has held top maintenance and operations positions with National Airlines, Pan Am and America West Airlines.
Times staff writer Hugo Martin contributed to this report.