As a frequent flyer and the daughter of an airline mechanic, flight news often catches my attention, particularly when it deals with fatal crashes or mechanical malfunctions.
Because of that, the headline "Southwest Airlines cancels 300 flights, begins inspecting aircraft" quickly caught my attention, as I perused the google news feed today.
Upon reading this Christian Science Monitor article, I learned that Southwest Airlines cancelled 300 flights after one of its Boeing 737s was grounded due to a rip in its fuselage. Sounds scary!
After reading the story once through, I did not expect to critique it for my weekly news critique, but I changed my mind after reading it again and noticing the vast amount of background research that was included. That, I thought, is noteworthy.
I do have one negative criticism before I begin commentating on the commendable use of background research by the story's writer--the article did not explain the incident in "laymen's terms." This is how the aircraft's malfunction was reported:
Shortly after Flight 812 had reached an altitude of 34,500 feet, a three-foot section of the overhead fuselage ripped open, depressurizing the cabin and slightly injuring a flight attendant and one passenger.
For people not familiar with the workings of an aircraft, it would be hard to grasp what actually happened. I, myself, do not know what a fuselage is or the negative effects of cabin depressurization, even though I've been told countless times how a flight operates by my aiplane-expert father.
For better understanding, I called my Dad to get a clearer explanation of the situation at hand.
He said, "The fuselage is the main body of the aircraft. The fuselage of the aircraft has a frame, just like a house has a frame. Attached to that frame are sheets of aluminum, called the 'skin of the fuselage.' Some of that skin peeled back and that made a hole in the aircraft. "
"[It is dangerous] because if the hole is large enough, a person can be sucked out. That actually happened once!"
My Dad also said that "If enough is ripped off, the plane could break apart. That is the worst case scenario."
He further explained to me that at high altitude, there is less oxygen. So, when there is a hole in the aircraft, the cabin pressure changes immediately--meaning there is less oxygen--and can cause people to faint.
Obviously, this situation is much more grave than the reporter let on by using only detached jargon. But, as I said above, that was my only criticism. The writer did give readers a fuller understanding by providing an extensive amount of background information.
Readers were told how many Boeing 737s exist and regularly operate.
According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the US fleet includes 288 Boeing 737-300s (about 170 of them flown by Southwest), and 931 operate worldwide.
Readers were also told whether any similar incidents have occurred in the past.
In July, 2009, Southwest Flight 2294 flying from Nashville to Baltimore at 34,000 feet had a football-sized hole in its fuselage near the tail, which caused rapid decompression and a forced landing in Charleston, West Virginia. No one was injured. The NTSB determined that metal fatigue had been the cause.
And, readers were told that since 1999, "the aircraft – which Southwest is gradually replacing with newer models – have undergone regular mandatory inspections, including the airframe and skin for any evidence of metal fatigue."
All of those background details give readers fuller understanding of the urgency of the situation, even if the reporter's explanation of the malfunction did not.
I was surprised to see that other news organzations that reported the same event, such as NBC LA, the Huffington Post and the Chicago Sun-Times, did not provide the same type of background information as the Christian Science Monitor.
This just shows that background information is seen as optional in modern journalism, even though my professors at the Washington Journalism Center, often affirm the students of its benefits.