Australian union: Qantas should ground 737 fleet over cracking issue

The union that represents aircraft maintenance engineers in Australia has urged Qantas to ground its fleet of Boeing 737 aircraft to ensure any structural cracks in the planes are repaired.

The US Federal Aviation Administration ordered inspections of Boeing 737 NG, or Next Generation, aircraft in September after the company told the agency that structural cracks had been found on heavily used planes.

On Friday, Qantas confirmed that it had pulled three 737 NG planes from service after they “were found to have a hairline crack.”

“These aircraft have been removed from service for repair,” the company said in a statement.

The move came just days after the carrier was forced to respond to the matter. On Wednesday, Qantas confirmed it pulled at least one aircraft with 27,000 flight cycles from service after an inspection revealed cracking, and on Thursday the Australian Licensed Aircraft Engineers Association said in a statement that a crack had been found in a second Qantas airliner.

“These aircraft should be kept safe on the ground until urgent inspections are completed and advice in relation to the ongoing nature of the wing cracks is confirmed by Boeing” and US regulators, union federal secretary Steve Purvinas said in a statement.

The cracks in 737 NG planes have been found on what is known as a “pickle fork,” a part of the fuselage that helps to attach the wings to the aircraft. The problem was discovered when some used passenger planes were being stripped down for conversion to freighter jets.

Boeing said in a filing to the US Securities and Exchange Commission last week that all 737 NG aircraft with over 30,000 flight cycles and a third of those with more than 22,600 cycles had been inspected, and that cracks had been found on a “small percentage” of them. It said that additional assessments are underway to determine the potential implications for younger planes.

There are about 6,800 of the 737 NG jets in service around the world. Their model names are the 737-700, 737-800 and 737-900.

The Boeing 737 NG is an older version of the company’s 737 MAX aircraft. All 737 MAX planes have been grounded since March after two fatal crashes killed 346 crew and passengers, putting the company’s safety record under the spotlight.

Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority downplayed the risk to the flying public from issues with the 737 NG.

“There is no evidence to suggest that we should be grounding the whole fleet at this point,” spokesman Peter Gibson told Australian broadcaster ABC on Thursday.

“The problems are being seen during a range of a certain number of cycles — take off and landings — and that is when the inspections are being done,” he said. “The inspections don’t take long, they take about an hour. So, it’s not a huge process to check the aircraft.”

Chris Snook, head of Qantas Engineering, said the union’s comments were “irresponsible” and the airline would “never operate an aircraft unless it was completely safe to do so.” Snook added that required inspections on all 737 NG aircraft would be completed by Friday.

“Even when a crack is present, it does not immediately compromise the safety of the aircraft,” he said.

Boeing said in a statement earlier this month that safety and quality are its top priorities.

“Boeing regrets the impact this issue is having on our customers worldwide,” said the aircraft maker. “We are working around the clock to provide the support needed to return all airplanes to service as soon as possible.”

CNN Business’ Chris Isidore and Michelle Toh contributed to this report.