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Jet’s Design Limited Tear’s Damage

The Southwest Airlines jet that peeled open at 34,000 feet frightened passengers with a loud bang and forced them to breath through oxygen masks, but the plane performed as designed to limit damage, federal investigators said Tuesday.

Flight 2294 from Nashville to Baltimore lost pressure Monday night when a 14-by-17-inch rectangle of the Boeing 737-300's skin ripped loose, said National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) spokesman Peter Knudson. Pilots made an emergency landing in Charleston, W.Va.

Passenger Charles Overby, who was sitting at the front of the plane, said he heard a pop about 30 minutes after takeoff.

Overby, CEO of the Newseum in Washington, D.C., and chairman and CEO of the Freedom Forum, a non-partisan foundation dedicated to the First Amendment, said oxygen masks dropped but no one seemed to panic.

The plane's three flight attendants reacted quickly, he said. "They went from being the casual, joking flight attendants that Southwest is known for, to being strictly business."

He did not see flight attendants don oxygen masks and items did not fly about the cabin, indications that the jet did not experience the type of violent decompression that have caused severe damage in other cases.

Federal regulations require that jets be built to withstand a tear in the fuselage without spreading or damaging other parts. A preliminary examination showed that "this safety feature performed as designed," Knudson said.

Structural failures that lead to lost pressure are very rare; it's even rarer that they lead to passenger deaths.

A flight attendant died on an Aloha Airlines 737 on April 28, 1988, in Hawaii, when 18 feet of the jet's skin peeled back at 24,000 feet. The NTSB ruled that undetected fatigue had weakened the jet. The accident prompted broad inspections of aging planes.

Southwest Airlines inspected all 181 of its Boeing 737-300 jets after the incident Monday and found no other problems, spokeswoman Beth Harbin said. The damaged jet was delivered to the airline in 1994.

Last March, Southwest agreed to pay $7.5 million to settle charges that it operated planes that had missed required safety inspections for cracks in the fuselage. The inspections were prompted by the 1988 Aloha crash.

The airline had made nearly 60,000 flights without the inspections. Southwest inspected the planes last year and insisted that safety had not been compromised.

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