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NTSB: Cracks Found In 3 Grounded Southwest Planes; Some Flights Impacted At BWI

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BALTIMORE (WJZ) — It’s a tiny, but potentially deadly problem on several Southwest Airlines planes. A plane was forced to make an emergency landing when a hole blew open its roof at 36,000 feet.

Andrea Fujii reports dozens of planes are grounded — including some at BWI — as the airline has taken nearly 60 planes out of service for inspection.

The National Transportation Safety Board says small cracks have now been found in three more Boeing 737 aircraft, all flown by Southwest.

Those cracks are blamed for causing a five foot long, one foot wide hole to burst open in the fuselage of a plane Friday.

“Was the aircraft well-maintained and should it have been maintained better? That is exactly why we are here, to look at why this problem occurred,” said Robert Sumwalt, National Transportation Safety Board.

The rupture happened 18 minutes after take-off from Phoenix, causing a loss of cabin pressure.

Oxygen masks deployed, but the pressure change caused one flight attendant and one passenger to pass out.

The pilots quickly descended from 36,000 feet to 11,000 feet in just four-and-a-half minutes.

“It seemed like we were dropping pretty fast, just all unreal.  I had to do a nice long prayer,” said David Smith, passenger.

Federal records show inspectors found multiple cracks in this plane’s fuselage last March; all were repaired.

Investigators are now pouring over the plane’s data recorders.

“It was a scary experience, but we got through it,” said one passenger.

The incident comes more than a year after a football sized hole appeared in a Baltimore-bound Southwest flight.  That plane made an emergency landing in West Virginia.

“This is a very fine and safe aircraft.  Twenty-five percent of the aircraft being flown today are 737s,” said Mark Rosenker, former National Transportation Safety Board Chairman.

Southwest mechanics have sawed out the problem section from that plane.  It is being shipped to Washington, where the NTSB will take an even closer look at it.

Only a couple of flights out of BWI Marshall are canceled Monday. Southwest expects all its planes to be back in service by Tuesday night.

In 2008, Southwest was fined more than $7 million for overdue inspections.  Southwest insists it rigorously and regularly inspects all its planes.

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