Boeing jet
© Boeing
Cracks were found in a vital reinforcing component known as the ‘pickle fork’ – which attaches the wings to the plane’s fuselage - in three of the jetliners last week, prompting the FAA to launch an emergency investigation.
Boeing's woes continue to mount after several of its 737 Next Generation (NG) aircrafts have been grounded following an emergency investigation that found cracking in a critical device involving the jets' wings. Cracks were first found in the reinforcing component known as the 'pickle fork' - which attaches the wings to the plane's fuselage - in three of the jetliners last week.

The discovery prompted the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to launch an emergency investigation, ordering the inspection of some 1,900 737 NGs across the US.

A leaked report obtained by aviation analysis firm Leeham shows that of the first 500 surveyed, 25 - or five percent - of the jets had suffered cracks to the pickle fork. It's not yet clear where the cited jets are located, the kinds of conditions they were flown under, or how many different airlines have been affected.
PickleFork
© Boeing
The pickle fork, named so because of its resemblance to the kitchen utensil, is a component that helps attach a plane’s fuselage to its wing structure, helping to manage the stress, torque and aerodynamic forces that bend the connection between the wings and the body of the jet. Though no crashes or incidents have yet been attributed to the cracked pickle forks, the consequences would be dire should the mechanism fail mid-flight.

However, Southwest Airlines confirmed Tuesday that two of its 737 NGs have been grounded following the probe after both were found to have suffered cracking.

In a statement to KOMO, a spokesperson for the airline said:
"During our inspections of the high-cycle NGs, we did not find abnormalities on the vast majority of our inspected fleet but did identify signs of cracking on two aircraft. Southwest removed the aircraft from our operation and reported the findings to Boeing and the FAA.

"Safety is always our uncompromising priority, and our Technical Operations Team is now focused on completing inspections on the remaining portion of the NG fleet covered by the AD."
The airline added that both of the troublesome 737 NGs will remain out of service until the issue is fully resolved and understood, with no return to service for the aircraft scheduled.

Models of the 737 NG include 737-700, 737-800, and the 737-900. American Airlines, United, and Delta are all listed as other operators of the model on Boeing's website.

In separate statements to DailyMail.com, American Airlines and Delta said none of its 737 NGs have been impacted by the FAA's investigation. Both airlines also pledged to continue to work closely with the FAA and Boeing regarding the new inspection requirements for their 737 NG fleets. United Airlines has not yet responded to a request for comment.

Issues with the pickle fork were first discovered on a passenger plane being converted into a cargo jet for Amazon Prime.

The cracks were found to have formed in the outer chord of the rear pickle forks and the behind lying safety straps, just where they pass from the rear spar of the center wingbox to the fuselage side of the aircraft. The pickle fork, named so because of its resemblance to the kitchen utensil, is a component that helps attach a plane's fuselage to its wing structure, managing the stress, torque and aerodynamic forces that bend the connection between the wings and the body of the jet.

Engineers designed the forks to last the lifetime of the plane - more than 90,000 take-offs and landings - without sustaining any wear and tear. But though no crashes or incidents have yet been attributed to the cracked pickle forks, the consequences would be dire should the mechanism fail mid-flight.

In a statement to DailyMail.com, Boeing spokesperson Paul Bergman ensured 'safety and quality' remain the companies 'top priorities'.
"Boeing notified the FAA of this issue and has been actively engaged with our 737NG customers globally in a plan to support the required inspections. Boeing has provided all 737NG customers detailed instructions for conducting the inspections and reporting the results.

"Boeing regrets the impact this issue is having on our 737NG customers worldwide and we are working around the clock to provide the support needed to return all airplanes to service as soon as possible."
Bergman added that Boeing is setting up a repair plan and will be providing customers parts and technical support as necessary.

The FAA's discovery comes as the latest blow to Boeing who were forced to ground its entire global fleet of the the 737 NGs successor, the 737 Max aircraft, in March, following two fatal crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia that left 346 dead.

Last week, pilot-union leaders at Southwest Airlines suggested it could be February or March for the company resumes flights using the 737 Max, which has led to cancellation of around 30,000 flights since the grounding was ordered.

Boeing had initially suggested the 737 Max would take the skies again in late 2019, but suffered a number of set-backs attempting to fix a software issue said to have played a key role in the two crashes.

American Airlines followed Southwest's lead Wednesday, announcing it too was pushing back its return of the 737 Max until early next year. The airline said it expects to slowly bring the plane back into its schedule starting January 16 - six weeks later than American planned just last month, and the sixth time the airline has pushed back the plane's return. Officials of the Fort Worth-based company says it will drop about 140 flights per day until mid-January because of the grounding. American has 24 Max jets in storage and expected to have 40 by the end of the year.

The setbacks add to a dogged year for Boeing, whose successive scandals have tarnished their public standing and caused share prices to plummet. But the manufacturer's losses may increase still, after Southwest Airlines pilots launched a lawsuit against them earlier this week, seeking $100 million in compensation for 10,000 pilots who claim to have lost wages because of the 737 Max's grounding.

Capt. Jonathan Weaks, president of Southwest Airlines (LUV) pilots association, said in a news release:
"As pilots, there is nothing more important to us than the safety of our passengers. We have to be able to trust Boeing to truthfully disclose the information we need to safely operate our aircraft. In the case of the 737 MAX, that absolutely did not happen."
In response, a company spokesperson told Barrons the company believed the 'lawsuit is meritless and will vigorously defend against it.'

Southwest's pilots aren't said to be the only group aggrieved by Boeing, with investors also being hurt by the scandal.

Airlines that operate the 737 Maxs have seen their share prices under perform in the past seven months when compared with airlines that don't operate the troublesome jet. Most Wall Street analysts expect the stock market to react positively when the 737 Max takes to the skies again. After that initial jump however, its predicted shares will trade in a tight range while the public - and pilots - wait for a substantial period of safe operation.

After the initial drop from $422 a share following the Ethiopian Airlines crash in March, Boeing shares have traded roughly in a $50 range and are down about 12 percent.

Boeing's 737 NG statement in full:
Safety and quality are Boeing's top priorities.

Boeing notified the FAA of this issue and has been actively engaged with our 737 NG customers globally in a plan to support the required inspections.

Boeing has provided all 737 NG customers detailed instructions for conducting the inspections and reporting the results. The company has held multiple customer engagements to ensure all technical questions are being addressed.

Boeing is actively working with customers that have airplanes in their fleets with inspection findings to develop a repair plan, and to provide parts and technical support as necessary.

Boeing regrets the impact this issue is having on our 737NG customers worldwide and we are working around the clock to provide the support needed to return all airplanes to service as soon as possible.

This issue does not affect any 737 MAX airplanes or the P-8.