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Cracks found in more Southwest jets

Inspectors have found small, sub-surface cracks in three Southwest Airlines planes similar to those that caused a jet to lose pressure and make a terrifying emergency landing in Arizona.

The airline had said on Sunday that it found cracks in two of their planes. A National Transportation Safety Board member said today a third plane was also discovered to have the cracks.

Southwest said the planes would be examined further and more repairs undertaken before they were returned to service, .

Friday's flight carrying 118 people rapidly lost cabin pressure after the Boeing 737-300's fuselage ruptured, causing a 5ft-long tear, just after take-off from Phoenix.

Passengers recalled tense minutes after the hole ruptured overhead with a blast and they fumbled frantically for oxygen masks.

Pilots made a controlled descent from 34,400 feet into a south-western Arizona military base. No-one was seriously injured.

The tear along a riveted "lap joint" shows evidence of extensive cracking that had not been discovered during routine maintenance before Friday's flight - and would probably not have been unless mechanics had specifically looked for it, officials said.

National Transportation Safety Board investigators were in Yuma, Arizona, to oversee the removal of the top section of the jet's roof around the tear. The structure will be sent to Washington DC for analysis.

Southwest said it cancelled about 300 flights for the second day in a row yesterday as it inspected 79 planes in its fleet similar to the one in Friday's incident. By early on Monday, 19 planes had undergone the intense inspection with no findings and had been returned to service, the airline said.

NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt said the rip was 1ft wide and that it started along a joint where two sections of the 737's skin were riveted together. An examination showed extensive pre-existing damage along the entire tear. But Mr Sumwalt noted that the extensive cracking, known in the industry as "multi-site damage", could not have been spotted during routine maintenance.

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