Southwest Grounds 79 Planes After Emergency

Southwest Airlines (LUV) said it was grounding 79 of its older Boeing 737-300 airplanes for possible problems with their outer skins, after a roughly three-foot hole between the top of the plane’s fuselage and the upper supports for several passenger windows, forced an emergency landing.

Flight 812, with 118 passengers and five Phoenix-based crew, was en route to Sacramento from Phoenix yesterday when a loss of cabin pressure of the 15-year-old  Southwest jet caused oxygen masks to deploy and prompted an emergency descent from 36,000 feet and a safe landing in Yuma, Arizona airport that serves as a joint-use facility for the U.S. Army and civilian aviation.

Debbie Downey, one of the passengers interviewed by CNN, said as soon as the masks came down, “the aircraft went into a complete nosedive.” At least one passenger and a flight attendant suffered minor injuries after the cabin lost pressure, according to the airline and the Federal Aviation Administration.

Dallas-based Southwest, which is the world’s largest operator of Boeing 737 jets, said “The carrier has decided to keep a subset of its Boeing (BA) 737 fleet out of the flying schedule to begin an aggressive inspection effort in cooperation with Boeing engineers.” The aircraft will be checked for metal skin fatigue.

Metal fatigue was blamed for an 14-inch crack in a Southwest 737 last July while it was flying at 35,000 feet, also forcing an emergency landing. The Boeing 737 was bound from Nashville, Tenn., to Baltimore when it lost cabin pressure.

Southwest said on its website it operates more than 3,400 flights a day coast to coast.

LUV closed up 0.3% to $12.67 on Friday. After Hours: $12.64 down $0.03 (0.24%).

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