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Southwest jet rupture and flight risk

By Arnold Barnett, Special to CNN
A sudden rupture in the fuselage forced Southwest Flight 812 to make an emergency landing.
A sudden rupture in the fuselage forced Southwest Flight 812 to make an emergency landing.
  • Southwest Airlines 737-300 was forced to make emergency landing after fuselage rupture
  • Arnold Barnett says the airline is right to inspect similar jets before flying them
  • He says such ruptures have caused crashes, including loss of China Airlines jet
  • Despite such incidents, safety measures have vastly reduced risk of flying

Editor's note: Arnold Barnett, George Eastman professor of management science at MIT, received the President's Citation from the Flight Safety Foundation in 2002 for his work on aviation safety. He has served as a consultant to the FAA and its contractors, and to six airports and fourteen airlines.

(CNN) -- After an unnerving event like the Southwest Airlines fuselage rupture, it is natural to wonder whether we have learned something new about aviation safety. To put it briefly, we haven't.

The news reports have noted that Southwest had a similar rupture in 2009 and that, earlier that year, the airline was fined $7.5 million by the FAA for maintenance violations. But it would be a mistake to conclude that Southwest is nonchalant about maintenance or anything else related to safety.

The fact is that, since its founding in 1971, Southwest has performed 16 million flights without a single passenger fatality. No other airline in the world, at any time, has ever matched that record of achievement.

Qantas, the Australian airline that also has a brilliant safety record, has itself suffered recent fuselage ruptures of late, both on its 747s and on an Airbus 380. To suggest that passengers should avoid Southwest or Qantas because of these events would be absurd.

Passengers describe emergency landing
Southwest Airlines flight diverted

But structural ruptures are serious and, in the worst case, can lead to crashes. A tear in the fuselage caused a China Air Lines 747 to plunge into the Pacific in 2002, killing 225 people.

That is why it is appropriate that Southwest has grounded those of its 737-300 jets that might be vulnerable to problems like the one that emerged on Friday and will only release them for flying after inspections.

Other airlines that fly the 737-300 are doubtless considering whether they should do likewise, as is the FAA and its counterparts around the world.

In this way, the new information from this unpleasant but nonfatal event will reduce the likelihood of something worse. It used to be said that the FAA had a "tombstone mentality," and that it acted mainly in response to lethal crashes. That characterization is no longer true (if it ever was).

Of course, part of the reason that FAA does more than react to bad crashes is that such crashes have become so rare in the First World. In 1960, there were six fatal crashes on U.S. airlines, including a mid-air collision over New York City that caused the planes involved to plummet into Brooklyn and Staten Island. Fifty years later in 2010, not a single passenger plane suffered a fatal crash in the United States or anywhere else in the developed world.

This improvement is all the more striking when we consider that passenger-miles on U.S. airplanes grew by a factor of 20 between 1960 and 2010. Indeed, if we could replicate in domains like health care the reduction of risk that has occurred in the skies, huge numbers of lives would be saved.

The news reports tell us that all 118 passengers aboard the Southwest jet that suffered the rupture quickly boarded a second plane, which Southwest had sent to complete the journey to Sacramento.

That decision shows both the courage and good sense of the passengers and is perhaps the best reaction to what happened. Today, it is almost as farfetched to worry about accidents on a U.S. airplane as to worry about a ceiling collapse in the grocery store.

That much attention is given to an airborne event with no serious injuries is quiet testimony to the near-disappearance of much worse events.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Arnold Barnett.

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