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A HOLE IN THE SKY AT SOUTHWEST
By Joe Brancatelli
Here's the latest news since our newsletter was published on Friday morning. I will update this information as required. As usual, like a Pinter play, this news spins out from the most recent at the top to the earliest reports at the bottom.

For ongoing details of flight operations in the next few days, check Southwest.com or Southwest's Twitter feed. If you want a third-party source (and you should), use FlightStats.com. If you are booked on Southwest, you make online changes to reservations here.

11:45pm ET, TUESDAY, APRIL 5, 2011
LOTS OF FLIGHTS AND CYCLES

It's getting better--oh, so slowly--at Southwest Airlines. It cancelled 50 flights today, but delayed more than 1,100.

Meanwhile, the FAA finally issued its "emergency" inspection order for older, high-use Boeing 737s. It won't require Southwest to re-inspect its aircraft. But the airline said today that five of its aircraft have shown the same kind of cracks along joints that apparently caused Friday's decompression incident.

Speaking of Flight 812, more details dribbled in about the aircraft's history. The 15-year-old Boeing 737-300 had accumulated 39,781 cycles (essentially takeoffs and landings) and 48,740 flight hours. Those are very high numbers for an aircraft of its chronological age. But no surprise since Southwest has built its business model on quick turns and keeping its aircraft in the skies.

11:30pm ET, MONDAY, APRIL 4, 2011
A BAD DAY TO FLY ANY AIRLINE

Southwest Airlines cancelled 98 more flights today and delayed 1,288. But it's hard to know exactly how many of those were caused by Southwest's grounding of its Boeing 737-300s for inspections and how many were caused by the bad weather in much of the nation. There were 583 cancellations and at least 8,000 delays across the entire airline system today, according to FlightStats.com.

In other words, a bad day to fly regardless of which carrier you booked. As for the continuing fallout from last week's incident on Southwest Flight 812, here are today's major developments:
    Southwest says 64 of the 79 grounded Boeings have now been inspected. All but three of those 64 have been returned to service. The others were found to have small cracks in the fuselage skin and were being repaired.
    The Federal Aviation Administration said Monday that it would issue an "emergency" directive on Tuesday. (Wouldn't you think it would issue the directive immediately if it were an honest-to-goodness emergency?) The directive will "initially" apply to inspections of 175 older Boeing 737s from the -300, -400 and -500 series that have flown more than 30,000 cycles. ("Cycle" is an industry term that basically covers one takeoff and landing. The number of cycles is a better indicator of aircraft aging and potential metal fatigue than the chronological date of manufacture.) Of those 175 aircraft, about 80 are operated by U.S. airlines.
    It was confirmed that the aircraft involved in last week's incident was 15 years old and operated for 39,000 cycles. The Associated Press said a March, 2010, inspection of the aircraft revealed 10 instances of cracking in the aircraft frame and 11 instances of cracks in the clips that hold the airplane's metal skin in place.
    Southwest seems intent on blaming Boeing for the plane's problems. "This is a Boeing-designed airplane. This is a Boeing-produced airplane," said Southwest spokeswoman Linda Rutherford. "It's obviously concerning to us that we're finding skin-fatigue issues." The problem with that bit of logic? Southwest is responsible for inspections of its aircraft and the FAA had previously issued warnings about potential cracking in Boeing's so-called "classic" 737s.

11:30pm ET, SUNDAY, APRIL 3, 2011
A BAD WEEK AHEAD FOR SOUTHWEST FLYERS

Things aren't getting appreciably better at Southwest Airlines and an extraordinary number of delays and cancellations are likely to continue through the middle of the week.

Southwest today cancelled 300 flights and delayed 991 more, after dumping 252 flights and delaying 1,044 flights yesterday. (These statistics, as usual, are from FlightStats.com.) And since Southwest has only finished the inspections of 12 of the 79 Boeing 737s-300s it pulled out of service yesterday, it'll be tough sledding for the next couple of days. Southwest says it expects to finish its inspections by late Tuesday. But that means Wednesday will be an uncomfortable day to fly, too.

Please plan accordingly. And remember that Southwest does not "interline" with other carriers. You can't just move your ticket to another airline. However, United and Continental are offering a mildly interesting deal: a flat fee of $150 each way for a standby seat if you're booked to fly Southwest through Wednesday.

One final note: Remember yesterday when Southwest was mum on both its Web site and Twitter feed about its troubled operations? Late today it added insult to injury by finally posting a statement on its Web site. Southwest's verbiage is brazen, self-serving baloney. (See it here.) Southwest claims it "is experiencing relatively few flight delays and cancellations."

Needless to say, 300 cancellations represent about 10 percent of Southwest's normal daily schedule. A 10 percent cancellation rate is not "relatively few." It's a catastrophe, since airlines rarely cancel more than 1 or 2 percent of their flights each day. And a thousand delays are not "relatively few," either. That's a third of the airline's schedule.

All in all, this is an epic fail for Southwest Airlines. The incident on Flight 812 was troublesome enough. Information from the National Transportation Safety Board that it found "widespread cracking" and metal fatigue on the fuselage of the stricken jet is not encouraging, either. Southwest's baffling silence yesterday followed by its outright deceptive comments about today's operations is inexplicable.

When it was disclosed in 2008 that Southwest Airlines hadn't properly inspected many of its aircraft, a lot of travelers gave the carrier the benefit of the doubt. The flight disruptions caused by an emergency grounding were largely tolerated. And Southwest's reputation suffered no real damage. (Read our contemporaneous coverage here.)

Business travelers won't be so quick to forgive Southwest this time, however, especially since the airline seems to be going out of its way to try to bamboozle us with transparently phony tales of "relatively few" problems.

7:30pm ET, SATURDAY, APRIL 2, 2011
TOMORROW IS ANOTHER (BAD) DAY AT SOUTHWEST

Southwest Airlines has now cancelled 251 flights today and delayed 947 more, according to the folks at FlightStats.com. That's out of a daily schedule of about 3,000 flights. The delays aren't insubstantial: Some flights today are going out two hours late.

Tomorrow won't be any better, either. The airline says it may cancel about 300 more flights on Sunday after grounding 79 of its Boeing 737-300s today for emergency inspections. (That's down from the 81 aircraft that Southwest said it had grounded earlier today.) And if you're scheduled to fly Southwest early next week, you might want to rebook elsewhere. This isn't a situation that will go away overnight.

7:00pm ET, SATURDAY, APRIL 2, 2011
BAD NEWS? WE AIN'T GOT NO STINKIN' BAD NEWS ...

If you thought Southwest Airlines had a corporate commitment to disclosure that legacy carriers didn't, well, you can't tell it by Southwest's actions so far today. There's not a word on the Southwest home page about the Flight 812 incident or any mention of the subsequent cancellations or delays. Don't go looking for information on Southwest's much-touted blog, either. The airline's bloggers are mum, but you can find a few discreet links to the carrier's press releases on Flight 812 in the right-hand margin. Want to follow the news? Might as well just do the Google thing. That link will take you to news stories and video reports as they post on the Internet.

5pm ET, SATURDAY, APRIL 2, 2011
SHOULD WE RETIRE FLIGHT 812 FROM SCHEDULES?

The aircraft involved in yesterday's fuselage incident was designated as Southwest Airlines Flight 812. It might be time to retire Flight 812 from all airline schedules. It has been unlucky and fatal in recent years. On May 22, 2010, Air India Express Flight 812 overshot the runway on landing at Mangalore, India. Only eight of the 166 passengers and crew survived. And on May 25, 2000, Philippines Airlines Flight 812 was hijacked. All the passengers and crew survived, but the hijacker was killed.

4pm ET, SATURDAY, APRIL 2, 2011
A BLOGGER'S TALE OF LIFE AFTER NEAR-DEATH

Shawna Malvini Redden, a blogger who goes by the online handle Blues Muse, was a passenger on Southwest Airlines Flight 812 yesterday. Her first-hand report is here. There are pictures, a link to her Twitter feed and some fascinating commentary about her experience.

12pm ET, SATURDAY, APRIL 2, 2011
SOUTHWEST'S SCHEDULE IS IN TURMOIL

It's turning out to be a very bad day to be a Southwest Airlines customer. Fallout from an in-flight incident last evening has led to the grounding of dozens of Southwest aircraft and lots of delays and cancellations.

Southwest has already cancelled 176 flights and delayed 444 more. (Thanks, as always, to the great numbers crunchers at FlightStats.com for the details.) If you're due to fly Southwest today, check current operations carefully before heading to the airport. Then be prepared for changes. If you're scheduled to fly Southwest in the next day or two, you can assume there will be an inordinate amount of cancellations and long delays.

Southwest grounded 81 Boeing 737 aircraft this morning for emergency inspections. That's about 15 percent of Southwest's fleet and, naturally, it's causing havoc around the airline's network.

In case you hadn't already heard, a Southwest flight that left Phoenix for Sacramento last evening made an emergency landing at a military base in Yuma, Arizona. The problem? A sudden drop in the cabin pressure and a rapid descent that was apparently caused by a large hole in the aircraft's fuselage.

The gap, variously estimated as 3- to 6-feet wide, was in the top of the aircraft around the middle of the cabin. None of the 118 passengers or five crew members were seriously injured. Oxygen masks were deployed and that raised the usual problem: Some passengers didn't know how to wear them properly and many didn't know the bags don't puff up when the oxygen was flowing. (I guess no one listens to the safety briefing no matter how hard Southwest tries to jazz them up.)

A warning here: As with all early reports of aircraft incidents, first details are often incomplete or simply incorrect. It'll take at least a few days to untangle what actually happened. So take all reports with several large grains of salt.

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ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.

THE FINE PRINT All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Joe Brancatelli. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.

This column is Copyright 2011 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2011 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.