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Up to 50 737NG planes grounded globally over cracks, says Boeing

Embattled aircraft maker says it is working with customers to develop repair plan, provide parts and technical support

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Mr Muilenburg repeatedly accepted accountability for the two Boeing 737 MAX crashes, but spurned calls to step down.

Sydney

BOEING announced on Thursday that up to 50 of its popular 737NG planes had been grounded after cracks in them were detected, in another blow to the US aircraft maker following two deadly crashes.

Australian national carrier Qantas became the latest airline to take one of the planes out of the air, saying it would urgently inspect 32 others but insisting that passengers had nothing to fear.

The announcement by Qantas came after authorities in Seoul said nine of the planes were grounded in South Korea in early October, including five operated by Korean Air.

The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had initially ordered immediate checks of Boeing 737NG planes that had flown more than 30,000 times.

Boeing had previously reported a problem with the model's "pickle fork" - a part which helps bind the wing to the fuselage.

This prompted US regulators to early this month order immediate inspections of aircraft that had seen heavy use.

But Qantas said it had found the fault in a more lightly used aircraft than those singled out for early checks; one that had recorded fewer than 27,000 flights.

"This aircraft has been removed from service for repair," Qantas said in a statement, adding it had hastened its inspections of 32 other 737NG planes to be completed by Friday.

Southwest Airlines Co found cracks in one with about 28,500 cycles, a separate source with knowledge of the matter said.

A Southwest spokesman said the airline has pulled three jets from service for pickle fork repairs but he could not confirm the number of cycles.

The airline has complied with the FAA directive on inspections but is expanding checks to its entire 737 NG fleet, he added.

Following the Qantas announcement, a Boeing spokesperson on Thursday told AFP in Sydney that less than five percent of 1,000 planes had cracks detected and were grounded for repair.

The spokesperson did not give an exact figure, though 5 per cent equates to 50 planes of 1,000 inspected.

Boeing and Qantas stressed travellers should not be concerned.

"We would never operate an aircraft unless it was completely safe to do so," Qantas head of engineering Chris Snook said.

But the discovery has heightened fears that the scale of the 737NGs' problem may have been underestimated.

The airline said it generally used the aircraft on domestic routes, flying primarily between major cities as well as shorter-haul trips to New Zealand.

A spokesman for Australia's aviation regulator said the industry response was about "nipping a potential safety problem in the bud by taking proactive action now".

Australia's Virgin Airways also conducted checks on its 17 Boeing 737NG planes and did not find any issues, the regulator spokesman added.

But there were calls for Qantas to ground its entire 737 fleet until checks were complete.

"These aircraft should be kept safe on the ground until urgent inspections are completed", an engineers' union representative, Steve Purvinas, said in a statement. Qantas described the call to ground its 737 fleet as "completely irresponsible".

"Even when a crack is present, it does not immediately compromise the safety of the aircraft," said Mr Snook.

A Boeing spokesperson said the company "regrets the impact" the issue was having on its customers and was "working around the clock" to fix the problem.

"Boeing is actively working with customers that have airplanes in their fleets with inspection findings to develop a repair plan, and to provide parts and technical support as necessary," the spokesperson said in a statement.

The NG is a precursor plane to the Boeing 737 MAX, which has been grounded since mid-March following the two deadly crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia.

Boeing is still trying to restore its safety reputation after two 737 MAX crashes last year that killed 346 people and highlighted problems with the planes' flight handling software.

Meanwhile, Boeing chief executive Dennis Muilenburg faced another round of tough questions on Wednesday from US lawmakers who accused the company of a "lack of candour" over the crashes.

He spurned repeated calls to step down by US lawmakers and from the mother of a young woman who was a victim of one of the two crashes.

When asked at separate points whether he had offered to resign or planned to submit a letter of resignation, Mr Muilenburg answered: "No."

He repeatedly accepted accountability for the crashes but said he was driven by childhood values instilled growing up on a farm in Iowa to see the world's largest planemaker through one of its worst crises.

His repeating that answer drew jeers from family members in the gallery.

Nadia Milleron, the mother of Samya Stumo who was killed in the Ethiopian Airlines crash in March, approached Mr Muilenburg after the hearing and demanded Boeing carefully ensure the 737 MAX is safe to fly, and then asked him to resign.

"You talked about Iowa just one too many times and the whole group said, 'Go back to the farm, go back to Iowa'," Ms Milleron told the CEO, adding, "Do that!" AFP, REUTERS

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