FAA: Aging Aircraft Policy Under Review

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The FAA Wednesday announced it will review its approach to aging aircraft and metal fatigue, after a five-foot gash tore open in the top of a 15-year-old Southwest Airline 737-300, Friday. The agency issued a rule last November that was meant to prevent "widespread fatigue damage." That rule gave manufacturers five years to set inspection plans and allowed airlines six years on top of that to implement those plans. Now, the agency says fatigue inspections must have more aggressive schedules. Monday, the agency mandated inspections for early model 737s. Tuesday it issued an emergency Airworthiness Directive (PDF). The review could result in new guidelines. The Southwest jet had flown 39,781 cycles, which is more than 20,000 cycles short of predicted limits. And there are many older jets flying in North America.

According to the aviation research group, Ascend, North America flies more aircraft that are at least 20 years old than any other region, worldwide, but the number of aircraft with more than 30,000 cycles is limited. Boeing has said that group includes 175 of its 737s and Southwest flies 90 of them. Concern is currently focused on the Boeing 737 Classics built between 1993 and 1999. Those aircraft incorporated a lap joint like the one that ruptured on the Southwest flight, a design that was later phased out. Operators that find cracks during inspections will need to work with Boeing to determine the best fix, which may include cutting out the affected area and replacing sections of fuselage.