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Faults Discovered in Boeing 737s, Result in FAA Inspection Order

By Don Phillips
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON

Federal regulators Thursday ordered airlines to remove 152 older Boeing 737s from service in the next week for inspections, acting with unusual speed after the discovery of damaged wiring in one jet raised concerns of a fuel tank explosion.

The unusually tight schedule for inspecting and overhauling the fuel tank wiring in the jet could cause some flight disruptions, Federal Aviation Administration officials said.

But it's unclear where any disruptions would occur, and several airlines affected by the emergency order said they could accommodate the fixes under the seven-day time frame. The action Thursday was not a formal grounding of the jets, like the DC-10 grounding in 1979, and thus far only has affected a small portion of the 2,900 737s in service worldwide.

The FAA also ordered less rigorous inspections of several hundred 747 and 767 jets.

Officials said the discovery was serious. Rich Breuhaus, Boeing's chief engineer for fuel system safety, said that if the same problem occurs on other 737s, "there is a potential for fire or explosion if conditions are right."

But officials said they were confident that the possible risk to passengers in the next week was small, but will take further action if the inspections turn up new problems. The 737 is the most popular passenger jet in the world.

"Using the best brains we can put on this, we think the seven-day period is enough," said Tom McSweeny, director of the FAA's aircraft certification service.

The problem arose when several days ago Continental Airlines mechanics were looking for a fuel leak on a 737. They discovered small pinholes in a metal pipe covering high-voltage electrical wires going to a fuel pump. The pipe is supposed to prevent the wires from coming into contact with fuel or fuel vapors, Boeing engineers said.