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Vijay Verghese, Editor, Smart Travel Asia

To B or not to B737

With fuselage skin peeling off every once in a while, fragile passengers are experiencing true blue-sky flight. At 30,000ft the pressure mounts.


Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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Fuselage cracks can peel away aircraft skin and blow off parts of the cabin walls - ALoha Airlines B737 in 1988 incident
Aloha open-top flight - 1988

WHILE AIRLINES protest travel is down and profits are in a slump, aircraft continue to be packed and on many routes there are now flights at 1am – a privilege once reserved for the twilight zone of New Delhi and Mumbai. Now that New Delhi has a swank and functional new airport, 3am red-eye arrivals are no fun anymore. There is zero adrenalin rush. Immigration is boringly quick though the new carpets are deeper than savannah grass and you may sink in to your knees if unschooled in the art of fording such modern obstacles.

When planes get full, airlines upgrade passengers. Cattle class louts are bumped up to business while club fare travellers shimmy up to the nose. The first class glitterati have nowhere to go but most simply get bumped off by moose-jawed characters carting large guns – or so my TV serials appear to indicate – while bankers do their normal thing: wear a bright tie, head to the office, take the elevator to a high floor and jump out of the window. This makes room for those in the back.

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It's called service. Okay, it's also practical on overbooked flights. Time may come when passengers find themselves upgraded to the cockpit. This could save money on pilots who need a long list of expensive paraphernalia from higher education, mathematically inclined parents and 20:20 vision, to Porsche cars, smart uniforms, goo-goo-eyed stewardesses and inflatable dolls for that occasional mile-high nooky.

And now there are further signs that aircraft manufacturers are willing to go that extra mile to create heightened passenger experience. You've heard of convertible BMWs. But what of convertible planes? On 28 April, 1988, an Aloha Airlines B737 showed that it is possible to peel off most of the fuselage and still fly – offering stunning 360-degree vistas to stunned passengers. On that occasion, at 24,000ft over Hawaii, a 12ft long and 8ft wide strip tore off the roof of the main cabin. The plane landed safely.

More recently on 1 April, 2011, A Southwest Airlines B737 lost a chunk of roof almost five feet long and around nine inches wide, this while aloft over Arizona. As the skin of the fuselage peeled off, the aircraft made an emergency landing at Yuma. While not as spectacular as the Aloha Airlines incident, passengers got a view of blue sky and more. Hurrah.

What ails the Boeing 737? It is a workhorse series conceived as far back as the mid Sixties to compete with the DC9 from McDonnell Douglas. With the design process severely compressed and workers press-ganged to get the plane off the assembly line in record time, what emerged was an extrapolation – albeit a brilliant one – of the earlier 727, rather than a dramatic new aeroplane. With a single-aisle six abreast 3-3 seat configuration it proved an ideal short hop aircraft.

At 30,000ft an aircraft is not very different from an inflated balloon. The outward force, in order to maintain cabin pressure, is the equivalent of half a ton over each square foot of fuselage...

Yet, over the past year the US Federal Aviation Administration has issued an estimated 13 notices relating to fuselage cracks in B737s, ordering the grounding and inspection of a large number of aircraft. Wear and tear of aircraft skin is an inevitable outcome of constant take-offs and landings as the cabin pressurises and depressurises, expanding and contracting, subjecting the metal and rivets to enormous stress and fatigue. At 30,000ft an aircraft is not very different from an inflated balloon. The outward force, in order to maintain cabin pressure, is the equivalent of half a ton over each square foot of fuselage.

A B737 is certified for about 60,000 safe "cycles", each cycle being one take-off and landing. In actual fact the plane is considered safe for up to double this number of cycles. The Aloha aircraft and others with fuselage cracks have had under 40,000 flying cycles. This has raised concerns that Boeing may not be getting to the crux of the matter, simply offering quick fixes rather than a thorough systemic overhaul. The original B737, or the "Classic", was superseded by the "Next Generation" aircraft and these NG planes are prolific in our skies today. They have a modestly tougher body but are not radically different. Meanwhile budget and low-cost airlines are flying their planes through increasing cycles to deliver profit.

As Boeing contemplated drastic changes for a brand new model, archrival Airbus rolled out its A320 NEO (New Engine Option) series that has gained substantial traction with airlines due to increased fuel efficiency. In response Boeing will launch the B737MAX (due by 2018). This is, again, a newer version of the existing aircraft with a more robust fuselage and more powerful engines. It is not a remodelled design.
Launching a completely new aircraft involves applying for and acquiring airworthiness certification and a host of permissions. It also involves changing the production line, laying off or retraining workers and rebuilding factories – all expenses aircraft manufacturers simply do not wish to deal with at present. An evolutionary next gen airplane is considered an extension of an existing model and requires no huge amount of bureaucratic paperwork.

Thus it is we can expect upgrades to continue. You might even spot the occasional convertible open-top fuselage model. Still, air travel remains safe. Just don't lean too heavily against the fuselage as you impress that blonde. And do keep your seat belts fastened.

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