* Southwest has largest fleet of older Boeing jets
* Southwest willing to expand inspections if warranted
* Four jets with cracks returning to service
By Chris Baltimore
DALLAS, April 8 (Reuters) - Southwest Airlines (LUV.N) is willing to expand inspections for its older Boeing 737 aircraft but sees no reason for concern a week after one of its jets made an emergency landing with a hole in its fuselage, the discount carrier’s chief executive officer said on Friday.
An older-model Southwest Airlines 737-300 was forced to make an emergency landing in Arizona on April 1 when a 5-foot (1.52 meters) tear opened up in its fuselage 20 minutes after takeoff.
The incident prompted Southwest, the largest domestic airline by passengers flown, to ground planes and cancel hundreds of flights over the weekend so it could inspect more than 70 of its older model 737-300s.
“If there is some finding that suggests that there is merit to expanding inspections beyond what we’ve done, well of course we’re going to do that,” said Gary Kelly, chief executive officer of the discount carrier, speaking to a conference of business journalists.
However, Kelly warned against an over-burdensome inspection regime.
“At some point if you are going to fly on an airplane, you’ve got to take off,” he said.
The Federal Aviation Administration, National Transportation Safety Board and Boeing are all investigating the cause of the April 1 incident, which has raised concerns about wear and tear on older models of Boeing’s (BA.N) 737.
Boeing responded quickly to the Southwest incident, and the airline has no plans to seek links with other aircraft makers, Kelly said.
“Boeing has been there for Southwest Airlines,” he said.
The 737-300 represents roughly 20 percent of Southwest’s all-737 fleet, the most popular commercial aircraft ever and a workhorse globally.
As a result of the inspections, Southwest found “very small cracks” in five of its aircraft — and four of those five aircraft will be back in service by late on Friday, Kelly said.
Southwest’s operations are largely back to normal, Kelly said. Kelly declined to say how much the inspections cost Southwest in lost revenues, but said “it is not multimillions of dollars.”
So far, the problem has been limited to Southwest, which paid a $7.5 million Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) fine for operating 737s without required fuselage structural inspections in 2006/07. (Editing by Gary Hill)