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FAA orders emergency inspection of some 737's

A Southwest Airlines plane sits in a remote area of the Yuma International Airport, after the plane had a section of fuselage tear from the plane during a flight on Friday, seen here Mon., April 4, 2011, in Yuma, Ariz.

Federal officials have issued an emergency order requiring inspections of Boeing planes with similar construction to the Southwest Airlines plane that had a 5-foot tear that led to an emergency landing last week.

The Federal Aviation Administration order Tuesday applies to Boeing 737-300s, 400s and 500s that have a similarly constructed joint where pieces of the plane's skin meet. The joint is at about the midpoint of the passenger cabin.

Nearly all the U.S.-registered planes covered in the order have already been re-inspected. The FAA has previously said the order will affect 80 U.S. planes, 78 of which are operated by Southwest.

The other two are operated by Alaska Airlines. Southwest has said it has finished their inspections, finding five more planes with similar signs of metal fatigue.

Today, a Boeing's chief project engineer for the 737's in question told The Seattle Times' Dominic Gates the company's Next Generation 737 will not face similar problems, saying it has lap joints that are "signficantly different and much improved" than with previous models:

Paul Richter...said the 1-by-5-foot hole opened up due to fatigue cracks in the metal emanating from the fastener holes at the so-called lap joints, where two panels overlap and are spliced together. Richter said that the specific design of this lap joint was installed on all classic 737s models built between 1993 and 2000, a total of 570 airplanes.

The Southwest plane that ripped open had flown about 40,000 take-off and landing cycles. Until this incident, Boeing testing had determined inspection of the lap joints was not necessary until about 60,000 cycles, according to Richter's comments in The Times.

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