Aircraft MRO needs its own overhaul

A recent incident involving Southwest Airlines flight 812 – a Boeing 737-300 on a flight from Phoenix to Sacramento in the U.S. – highlights the need for more frequent and detailed inspections of the entire fuselage areas of all commercial aircraft.

Southwest Airlines flight 812

During this flight a 1.5 metre strip of the aircraft’s fuselage was torn away, leading to rapid decompression. The pilot was able to safely bring the aircraft to a lower altitude and then land at a nearby Marine Corp Air Station.

A similar, if even more dramatic incident occurred in 1998 to a Hawaiian Airlines Flight – Aloha 243 Boeing 737 -200. Like those at South West, these are seriously busy aircraft that will take off and land nine times per day.

B737-200-Aloha-Hawaii

The cause of these failures in the structure of aircraft has been linked to stress-induced fatigue. The Southwest aircraft was only 15 years old but had undergone more than 39,000 take off and landing cycles. Of course, once the incident occurred the FAA ordered inspections of all similar South West aircraft. In that company’s fleet of 79 Boeing 737’s, five had similar cracks!

Air travel safety bureaux the world over, only seem to react…i.e. they only order very specific inspections when a problem has occurred. Australia’s own air safety board – CASA- had ordered the inspection for fatigue in Boeing 737 aircraft in 2008… but only for specific sections of the fuselage. Maintenance schedules are still mostly determined by the aircraft manufacturers – and who are their biggest customers?  The airlines!

MRO (Maintenance Repair and Overhaul) is probably the least glamorous side of the aviation industry, but it is far from being the least important. Aircraft that regularly transport hundreds of people over vast distances at very high speeds and under great strain must be properly looked after. If this means more checks and subsequently more maintenance such as de-paint/re-paint then do it.

When an aircraft breaks up mid-flight it is not good enough for an airline to say they followed the manufacturer’s recommendations. They have a responsibility to the travelling public that goes beyond just ticking the boxes… once on board, our lives are literally in their hands.

A section of the torn fuselage skin from the Southwest Airlines plane

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