Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 MAX 8 in Phoenix, Arizona. Picture: GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA/AFP/RALPH FRESO
Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 MAX 8 in Phoenix, Arizona. Picture: GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA/AFP/RALPH FRESO

Washington/São Paulo/Rabat — Southwest Airlines and Brazil’s Gol Linhas Aéreas have grounded a total of 13 Boeing 737 NG aircraft, the companies said, after US regulators ordered urgent inspections.

Southwest said it had taken two planes out of service, while Gol had grounded 11. Both airlines are major operators of the 737, including the NG variant and the more recent MAX, which has been grounded for months after two deadly crashes.

Last week, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) told aircraft operators to inspect 165 older 737 NG planes for structural cracks within seven days, after cracking was found on a small number of planes. Nearly all the 165 jets were Southwest aircraft, officials said. First delivered in 1997, the NG is the third generation of the 737, preceding the grounded MAX, which is unaffected by the cracking issues.

Southwest, which did not find any issues in the “vast majority” of planes, said it “removed the two aircraft from our operation and reported the findings to Boeing and the FAA”.

Gol, which runs a fleet of 115 737s excluding its grounded MAX jets, said it took 11 out of service after finding “evidence of the need to replace a specific component”. The fleet change will affect 3% of passengers until December 15, it said.

The inspections were ordered following the discovery of cracks on a part known as the “pickle fork”, which attaches the fuselage to the wing structure and manages forces. Minor aircraft cracks are not unusual, an industry source said, but are not normally expected to occur on the pickle fork until near the end of the plane’s lifespan, typically considered to be more than 90,000 take-off and landing cycles.

The FAA mandated checks for “cracking of the left- and right-hand side outboard chords of frame fittings and fail-safe straps”, warning that the issue “could adversely affect the structural integrity of the airplane” and result in loss of control. More planes will eventually be inspected, it said.

The initial inspection order covered a total of 1,911 US-registered planes. The checks can be done visually and take about an hour per plane.

Aircraft that have carried out more than 30,000 flight legs, or cycles, must be checked within seven days, the safety regulator said, while those with 22,600 to 29,999 cycles must be checked before completing a further 1,000. Boeing has been in touch with 737 NG operators about the inspections, the manufacturer said earlier, emphasising that “no in-service issues have been reported”.

United Airlines and American Airlines are among other US carriers flying the 737 NG, which includes the 737-600, -700, -700C, -800, -900, and -900ER variants. Each airline has about 80 planes that will need inspection in coming months, United and American said, but none that fall into the seven-day requirement for more urgent checks.

Ryanair

European budget carrier Ryanair, which has a fleet of more than 450 737-800s, confirmed it was in the process of carrying out the inspections, without saying how many planes required them. “We are midway through the first part of this mandatory check programme and don’t expect it will have any impact on our fleet or operations,” a Ryanair spokesperson said.

Transavia Airlines, a low-cost carrier owned by Air France-KLM, said it would examine all 42 of its 737s even though only 16 needed checks under the FAA mandate — of which one was inspected under the seven-day requirement. KLM, which also operates 737 NGs, did not immediately respond to questions.

Jeju Air, a South Korean low-cost operator, has also completed the majority of required checks, while inspections are ongoing at domestic rival Jin Air and had been completed at Eastar Jet. None of the three airlines had found any issues, they said.

Royal Air Maroc

Morocco’s national carrier Royal Air Maroc (RAM) has suspended a deal to purchase two more Boeing 737 MAX jets after the same model of aircraft crashed in Ethiopia, a source from the airline told Reuters on Thursday.

RAM had planned to receive the two 737 MAX aircraft in June, the source said, adding that two other 737 MAX planes in its fleet had been grounded pending the findings of an investigation into the Ethiopian crash in March.

Boeing did not immediately respond to an e-mailed request for comment.

Saudi Arabian airline flyadeal cancelled a $5.9bn provisional 737 MAX order after the Ethiopian crash and Emirati carrier flydubai has said it could replace MAX aircraft it has ordered with Airbus jets.

Separately, the source said that RAM is not concerned about its fleet of 737 NG planes after inspections that have taken place elsewhere in the world, saying the checks routinely take place on older jets or after a set number of flights.

RAM operates 36 of the 737 NG planes and only one has required such an inspection and no problems were found.

Reuters