After accidents, makers ponder how planes age

The flight of a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 that blew out a panel this month raises the question of whether airplanes are being kept in service too long.

An airplane that wasn't supposed to have metal fatigue problems this soon developed them, sending Boeing, the Federal Aviation Administration and the airlines scrambling to figure out what to do next.

The FAA, operators and Boeing are doing everything they can through inspection, testing and analysis programs to prevent problems, said Melinda Laubach-Hock, director of the National Institute for Aviation Research's Aging Aircraft Laboratory.

"They're being as comprehensive as they can to prevent this from happening," Laubach-Hock said. "That's why we don't see this (problem) on a daily, monthly or weekly basis."

Despite all the rigorous testing, you can't accurately predict the aging process, she said.

"If I asked you to predict when rust is going to occur on your car, it really depends," she said. "Damage doesn't happen on a predictable basis."

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