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Cracks found on 5% of older Boeing 737 planes in inspections


MORE than 5 per cent of older Boeing Co 737 jets that underwent urgent inspections worldwide in the past week have cracks in a structure connecting the wings to the fuselage and will have to be temporarily grounded.

So far, 36 of the workhorse Next Generation models have evidence of cracking out of 686 that have been inspected, Boeing said in an e-mail late on Wednesday providing updated numbers. Earlier in the day, the company told airlines that 25 planes had been found with cracks, also at a rate of about 5 per cent, said a person briefed on the discussions.

The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), acting after an alert from Boeing, issued an urgent directive last week requiring the checks on planes with more than 30,000 total flights by Oct 10. There are an estimated 165 aircraft that fit that description in the US, including 737-600, 737-700, 737-800, and 737-900 models, the FAA said in a statement.

"This condition could adversely affect the structural integrity of the airplane and result in loss of control of the airplane," FAA said in the order, which required jets with cracks to be grounded until they can be fixed. The FAA has no authority outside the US, but such orders are generally heeded elsewhere.

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Initial inspections have focused on the oldest aircraft, which appear to be most at risk for the cracking. That means that the percentage of Next Generation planes found to have problems could drop as newer jets are checked.

Aircraft with 22,600 to 29,999 flights must be inspected over the next 1,000 flights. There are about 6,800 737 Next Generation jets in service around the world, so the cracking has so far affected less than 1 per cent of the entire fleet.

Brazilian carrier Gol Linhas Aereas Inteligentes SA said it would remove 11 of the jets from service. Grounding those planes to make repairs will affect 3 per cent of passengers through Dec 15. Southwest Airlines Co has grounded two aircraft for signs of cracking after the initial round of inspections. The Dallas-based company has about 100 more aircraft to examine under the FAA requirement.

Indonesia's Lion Air said it will inspect its 737 fleet in accordance with the airworthiness directive, though its planes have a maximum 25,000 flight cycles and no jets have been grounded. Garuda, Indonesia's flag-carrier, has idled one plane after finding cracks, out of three with more than 30,000 cycles.

After the FAA order earlier this month, Boeing said that "safety and quality" are its top priorities and it's working with customers to address any needed repairs as soon as possible.

Boeing is setting up a repair station in Victorville, California, and expects fixes to take two to three weeks per plane, said the person familiar with the discussions.

The cracks were first discovered on planes being overhauled in China, the FAA said earlier.

The structure affected is known as a "pickle fork" and helps attach the wing to the fuselage. It's supposed to last the lifetime of the plane without cracking.

The 737 Max, which was designed to replace the Next Generation models, has been grounded globally since March 13 as Boeing redesigns a flight-control system implicated in two fatal crashes - a Lion Air flight that plunged into the Java Sea and an Ethiopian Airlines jet that crashed later.

Meanwhile, American Airlines said on Wednesday that it expects federal officials to sign off on software updates and other changes to Boeing's 737 Max jets later this year and plans to resume passenger service on the aircraft on Jan. 16.

"American Airlines anticipates that the impending software updates to the Boeing 737 Max will lead to recertification of the aircraft later this year and resumption of commercial service in January 2020," the airline said in a statement. "We are in continuous contact with the FAA and Department of Transportation (DOT)."

Despite American's announcement, FAA officials maintained there is no timeline for returning the planes to service said it has not given airlines a date for when the grounding will be lifted.

"The FAA is following a thorough process, not a prescribed timeline, for returning the Boeing 737 Max to passenger service," the agency said in an e-mail. "The FAA is continuing to evaluate Boeing's software modification and is still developing necessary training requirements."

American's date for resuming service with the Max would make it the last of the major carriers to resume flying the Max under dates that have been announced. Southwest Airlines, which has the most Max jets of any US carrier, has removed the jets from its schedule until Jan 5, while United Airlines has removed the Max from its schedule until Dec 19.

American said that flights on the 737 Max will resume starting Jan 16, and will gradually increase throughout January and into February. BLOOMBERG, WP

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