Boeing's Thin Skin
Irving, Clive, Newsweek
Byline: Clive Irving
The 737's hush-hush fix.
After years of insisting that America's most-flown airliner--the 737--was safe, Boeing has quietly been telling airlines that the next version, the 737MAX, will have a strengthened fuselage. This might seem an obscure technicality if it weren't for the 737's unsettling track record: as I reported in Newsweek this spring, the 737 has a long history of emergencies caused by cracks in the fuselage skin. In the worst recent case, on April 1 of last year, Southwest Airlines Flight 812 had to make an emergency landing after a 59-inch-long hole ripped through its cabin roof.
Between 2001 and 2011 the FAA issued 13 directives requiring immediate safety checks on thousands of airplanes after serious cracks appeared in 737 fuselages, my reporting found. Of these, six could have caused the terrifying scenario of Flight 812, a rapid decompression of the air inside the cabin.
Boeing has not disputed this record, but insisted that safety checks had caught the defects before they caused in-flight emergencies--and that its system of checks "has been validated over decades, as shown by today's unmatched safety record." But when John Goglia, a former top investigator at the National Transportation Safety Board, reviewed the FAA directives, he told me that Boeing's system was the minimal necessary response. "If a situation requires three steps to solve it, A, B, and C, they will always fight to restrict it to A; if pushed to B; and only if really pushed to C. …