Statistically speaking, flying is safe. The odds of being on a plane that has some kind of catastrophic failure mid-flight is minuscule. Or, if you happened to be one of the 118 people on Southwest Flight 812 (a Boeing 737-300) headed to Sacramento this past Saturday morning… 100%.
The airline industry only has to do one thing to maintain passengers confidence. Promote an appearance of safe flight. So when a gaping hole opened up along the top of the 737, flying seemed to be not as safe as it was just a few minutes prior.
You have to admire Southwest Airlines for grabbing the plane by the fuselage and getting pro-active with the situation. In response to the event, SWA grounded 81 other 737s for immediate inspection.
In its statement on the inspections, Southwest said Sunday that two planes were found with cracks similar to those in the stricken aircraft. These will be evaluated and repaired before they are returned to service. A National Transportation Safety Board member told The Associated Press later that a third plane had been found with cracks developing.
Southwest has been systematically replacing the 737-300 as it takes deliveries on new aircraft. This is the oldest model in their fleet comprising 170 of 548 planes. All 81 of the grounded aircraft are this model. Some of the SWA 737-300s have had their fuselage retrofitted in recent years. These planes were not grounded.
As airlines deal with an aging fleet it will be interesting to watch how this incident impacts that effort. Planes are expensive and profits are thin. Southwest is fortunate the flight crew got this plane on the ground safely. Until live are lost as a result of fatigued aircraft, I’m afraid airlines worldwide will be somewhat cavalier about getting serious with this problem.