April 2, 2011 / 7:13 PM / 6 years ago

UPDATE 2-Southwest may cancel another 300 flights Sunday

(Updates with possible impact on Sunday, other details)

By Alex Dobuzinskis

LOS ANGELES, April 2 (Reuters) - Southwest Airlines (LUV.N) canceled hundreds of flights over the weekend as it inspected 79 aircraft from its Boeing 737 fleet after one of its planes with a gaping hole in the fuselage made an emergency landing, the airline said on Saturday.

The airline said was canceling some 300 flights on Saturday, a day after the emergency landing, and could cancel around that number again on Sunday.

“We don’t at this time know what the impact will be, but it’s possible that it could be in the 300-flight range again tomorrow,” Southwest spokesman Brandy King told Reuters.

Passengers aboard Southwest Flight 812 from Phoenix to Sacramento on Friday heard a loud noise and the hole appeared suddenly at about mid cabin, forcing the pilot landed at a military base in Yuma, Arizona.

The emergency aboard the Boeing (BA.N) 737-300 prompted the airline to examine similar aircraft within its fleet, with a total of 79 inspections planned at five locations over the next several days, Southwest said in a statement.

Southwest normally has about 3,400 flights on Saturday, King said, so the cancellations accounted for nearly 9 percent of that total.

“We did our best to accommodate those passengers on other Southwest flights,” King said.

A total of 931 Boeing 737-300s are operated by all airlines worldwide, with 288 of them in the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration said.

The Southwest flight that was forced to make an emergency landing had 118 passengers and five crew members on board.

Southwest and Boeing engineers will inspect the grounded aircraft, and the airline is working with federal authorities to determine the cause of the incident, Southwest said.

The pilot made a rapid descent from about 34,400 feet (10.3 km) to 11,000 feet (3.4 km), following standard practice to reach an altitude where supplemental oxygen is no longer required, the FAA said.

One flight attendant and at least one passenger were treated at the scene for minor injuries, Southwest said.

The Boeing 737 landed at 4:07 p.m. local time after declaring an emergency, said Ian Gregor, an FAA spokesman.

The airline said it arranged for another aircraft to take the passengers from the Yuma Marine Corps Air Station to Sacramento.

Passengers described the harrowing scene to the CBS television affiliate in Sacramento, detailing the damage to the plane.

“They had just taken drink orders when I heard a huge sound and oxygen masks came down and we started making a rapid descent. They said we’d be making an emergency landing,” a woman identified as Cindy told the station.

“There was a hole in the fuselage about three feet (91 cm) long. You could see the insulation and the wiring. You could see a tear the length of one of the ceiling panels.” (Additional reporting by David Schwartz in Phoenix and Lauren Keiper in Boston; Editing by Greg McCune and Vicki Allen)

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