RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Southwest Airlines is facing questions over its safety record after an incident last Friday afternoon. One of the company's jets developed a five-foot long hole in its roof while in-flight. The jet made an emergency landing in Yuma, Arizona. Now inspectors have found small cracks under the surface of three other planes.
Over the weekend, the airline grounded dozens of jets and canceled hundreds of flights. Southwest says none of the passengers or crew onboard Friday's flight received serious injuries. But as NPR's Jeff Brady reports, the experience was harrowing.
JEFF BRADY: Southwest flight 812 took off from Phoenix, headed for Sacramento on Friday afternoon. Shawna Malvini Redden says she had a window seat in row 8. Less than 20 minutes into the flight there was a very loud pop.
Ms. SHAWNA MALVINI REDDEN: It sounded like a gunshot.
BRADY: Redden says she covered her ears and felt air rushing around her.
Ms. REDDEN: The masks dropped down and I remember feeling, you know, shaky and little light-headed, trying to put my mask on, and my heart beating out of my chest.
BRADY: At about 34,000 feet the plane lost pressurization, that's why the oxygen masks dropped. Behind her, Redden says there was a ceiling panel ripped open and passengers could see outside. Redden turned to the man sitting next to her.
Ms. REDDEN: I just remember looking at him and thinking, you know, if we're going down I need to hold this guy's hand, so I grabbed his hand and we just held hands and prayed for a few minutes. But luckily, we were able to get, you know, down to 10,000 feet to a lower altitude and we didn't need the masks anymore.
BRADY: After the plane landed in Yuma, Arizona, Southwest flew her on to California. While she's happy to be safe, the drama continues for the airline.
Mr. JIM HALL (Former chairman, National Transportation Safety Board): Southwest, of course, has had issues in the past, with the roof and fuselage of their aircraft.
BRADY: Jim Hall was chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board during the Clinton Administration. Two years back, he says a Southwest flight made an emergency landing. It had a hole about a foot long in the fuselage. Both incidents involved Boeing 737-300 aircraft.
Mr. HALL: When I heard it was a 737-300 I knew that it was an aircraft that had been around a while and had a number of miles on it.
BRADY: Southwest says the plane is 15 years old - about four years beyond the average age of the airline's fleet. Southwest Spokeswoman Linda Rutherford says this plane was not too old to be in service.
Ms. LINDA RUTHERFORD (Spokesperson, Southwest Airlines): Both in terms of its age - it was delivered in 1996 - and in terms of it cycles it's a relatively young airplane. And a cycle is a take-off and a landing.
BRADY: Cycles are important because they're stressful on a plane and Southwest jets undergo more cycles a day than aircraft from most other airlines. Short turn-arounds are part of the company's reputation for being efficiently run.
Some have speculated that since Southwest squeezes more out of its aircraft, that might play a role in an incident like this. But spokeswoman Rutherford says that's not a factor.
Ms. RUTHERFORD: While we have a high utilization of our aircraft fleet, we obviously have been complying with whatever maintenance intervals might be required as a result.
BRADY: Still, Southwest has been in trouble for maintenance issues in the past. In 2009, the airline agreed to pay a $7.5 million fine for failing to perform mandatory inspections on nearly 60,000 flights. The company says it's cooperating with federal investigators looking into this incident.
Jeff Brady, NPR News.�
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