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Southwest checks planes after hole forces landing

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Southwest Airlines Co. inspected about 200 planes overnight after a football-sized hole opened up in the passenger cabin of a jet in flight, forcing an emergency landing in West Virginia.

Only one of the first 17 Southwest arrivals at Tampa International Airport was late Tuesday, and 30 of 35 morning departures left on time, according to the Web site flightstats.com.

Travelers on the Boeing 737 could see through the 1-by-1-foot hole that appeared during the flight Monday. The cabin lost pressure, but no one was injured on the Nashville-to-Baltimore flight with 126 passengers and five crew members on board.

Passenger Brian Cunningham told NBC's Today show Tuesday that he had dozed off in his seat in midcabin when he was awakened by "the loudest roar I'd ever heard."

He said the hole was above his seat. People stayed calm and put on the oxygen masks that dropped from the ceiling.

"After we landed in Charleston, the pilot came out and looked up through the hole, and everybody applauded, shook his hand. A couple of people gave him hugs," Cunningham said.

It's not clear what caused the damage.

Southwest spokeswoman Marilee McInnis said the airline inspected 200 Boeing 737-300 series jets overnight at hangars around the country and discovered no similar problems.

"It was a walk-around visual inspection just to check for structural integrity," McInnis said.

All the inspected planes were put into routine service Tuesday morning, while the one that landed in West Virginia remained there. Representatives from the National Transportation Safety Board and Boeing were helping to determine the cause of the hole, McInnis said.

The hobbled airliner was placed in service during the 1990s and went through "routine maintenance" this month, McInnis said.

The 137-seat 737-300 makes up about one-third of the carrier's fleet of about 540 jets. Southwest is the biggest airline at Tampa International Airport. It carried 30 percent of all travelers through the first five months of this year.

Southwest was operating a normal schedule of flights — about 3,300 per day — with no cancellations or delays through midmorning, McInnis said.

Times staff writer Steve Huettel contributed to this report.

Southwest checks planes after hole forces landing 07/14/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 14, 2009 11:05am]
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