Boeing says up to 50 planes grounded globally over cracks

The announcement comes a day after company's CEO was grilled by US lawmakers over a "pattern of flawed aircraft produced by Boeing"

Boeing announced Thursday up to 50 of its popular 737NG planes had been grounded after cracks in them were detected, in another blow to the US aircraft maker following two deadly crashes. The announcement comes after Australian national carrier Qantas became the latest airline to take one of the planes out of the air, as it said it would urgently inspect 32 others.

Boeing had previously reported a problem with the model's "pickle fork" - a part which helps bind the wing to the fuselage. This prompted US regulators to early this month order immediate inspections of aircraft that had seen heavy use.

Following the Qantas announcement, a Boeing spokesperson on Thursday tried to reassure clients and passengers, telling AFP in Sydney that less than 5% of 1,000 planes had cracks detected and were grounded for repair. The spokesperson did not give an exact figure, though five percent equates to 50 planes of 1,000 inspected. Both companies also stressed that travellers should not be concerned.

"We would never operate an aircraft unless it was completely safe to do so," Qantas head of engineering Chris Snook said.

But the discovery has heightened fears that the scale of the 737NGs' problem may have been underestimated. The US Federal Aviation Administration had initially ordered immediate checks of Boeing 737NG planes that had flown more than 30,000 times. But Qantas now claims it had found the fault in a more lightly used aircraft than those singled out for early checks; one that had recorded fewer than 27,000 flights.

"This aircraft has been removed from service for repair," Qantas said in a statement, adding it had hastened its inspections of 32 other 737NG planes to be completed by Friday.

 In response, a Boeing spokesperson said the company "regrets the impact" the issue was having on its customers and was "working around the clock" to fix the problem.

"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," the spokesperson said in a statement.

Boeing is still trying to restore its safety reputation after two 737 MAX crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia last year that killed 346 people in and highlighted problems with the planes' flight handling software. Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg faced another round of tough questions on Wednesday from US lawmakers who accused the company of a "lack of candour" over the crashes.

During more than five hours of testimony in front of the House Committee on Transportation on Wednesday, Muilenburg answered dozens of questions about the company's flawed 737 Max and the plane's two fatal crashes. But it was a question about a different airplane that left Muilenburg speechless. A question, that Boeing appears to have tried to intercept before the hearing started, according to a leaked email from a Boeing lobbyist to staffers for Rep. John Garamendi, who represents California's 3rd Congressional District.

More than an hour into the testimony, Garamendi asked Muilenburg whether there was a pattern of flawed aircraft being produced by Boeing.

"Would you like to talk to me about the quality of the KC-46," Garamendi asked, referencing a problematic military jet built by Boeing, with Muilenburg remaining silent.

"Or would you like to talk about the quality of the Dreamliner," he continued. "You have a systemic problem in your company."

The aforementioned KC-46 is a military tanker and transport aircraft based on Boeing's 767 commercial airplane. It has been plagued by delays and maintenance concerns since the program began in 2011. It has been delayed several times, and exceeded its budget. Boeing has previously taken a $3.5bn charge due to delays and redesigns, according to Defence News.

On the other hand, the Dreamliner, also called the 787, is a commercial jet. It was briefly grounded in 2013 due to several reports of battery fires on the plane. Some 787s have also had to be grounded and repaired due to problems with engines manufactured by Rolls Royce (787 customers can opt for engines made by either Rolls Royce or General Electric).

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