FAA steps up checks on Boeing 757s

By Dow Jones Newswires-Wall Street Journal
Posted Dec. 10, 2010 at 5:35 a.m.

Aviation regulators are poised to order stepped-up inspections of more than 600 Boeing Co. 757 jetliners worldwide, prompted by a recent in-flight incident that left roughly a one-foot hole in the fuselage of an American Airlines plane.

Impending safety directives by the Federal Aviation Administration, according to people familiar with the matter, are expected to cover certain older models of the widely used, twin-engine planes. The FAA is drafting enhanced inspection mandates in the wake of the sudden rupture and rapid decompression that occurred Oct. 26 while the American jet was cruising at 31,000 feet en route from Miami to Boston.

Regulators in Europe and other regions are expected to follow the FAA’s lead, affecting many more planes.

Rapid decompressions are rare events, and they may stem from undetected metal fatigue that can suddenly peel back a portion of an aircraft’s aluminum skin in midair.

On Thursday, Boeing said it already has issued a service bulletin urging airlines to detect potential cracks in the “upper forward fuselage skin on certain” 757s. A Boeing spokeswoman declined to provide details about the results of the continuing inspections, which have been under way for weeks. She said the company continues to work with the FAA, airlines and U.S. accident investigators to assess relevant safety issues

It isn’t clear how quickly the FAA will act. An FAA spokeswoman said “we are aware of Boeing’s service bulletin,” but she declined to elaborate. Typically, regulators mandate changes in maintenance procedures suggested by manufacturers.

Nobody was hurt in the October event, and the American jet made a safe emergency landing back in Miami. But the incident sparked a National Transportation Safety Board investigation and prompted industry officials to increase scrutiny of the condition of the aluminum skins of 757 aircraft.

Investigators also have been looking for links between the October emergency and cracks found the same month in the fuselage of a United Continental Holdings’ United Airlines Boeing 757.

Previously, the safety board said experts were examining a section of the skin panel removed from the American jet near the roughly one-foot by one-foot tear above its left front cabin door. A safety board spokesman declined further comment Thursday.

A spokesman for AMR Corp.’s American Airlines unit said roughly 85 of the carrier’s fleet of 124 Boeing 757s are covered by Boeing’s nonbinding service bulletin. The average age of the fleet is about 16 years, meaning that many of the jets are classified as middle-aged aircraft. Enhanced inspection programs often are geared toward older aircraft.

The American spokesman said the carrier, which uses 757s on domestic and international routes, is conducting inspections “expeditiously,” but didn’t have details about results or how many planes still need to be checked.

An American 757 was undergoing repairs in Los Angeles Thursday, according to one person familiar with the details, after being grounded because of fuselage cracks.

Write to Andy Pasztor at andy.pasztor@wsj.com

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