The World's Most Popular Airliner Has a Problem -- and It's Fatal

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The most common jetliner in commercial aviation service could be headed for the repair hangar. The National Transportation Safety Board approved 10 safety recommendations for the Boeing 737 on Tuesday. The agency's action followed its investigation into two fatal air crashes, the 1994 crash of a USAir flight outside Pittsburgh and the 1991 crash of a United Airlines flight outside Colorado Springs. The board determined that a mechanical problem probably caused the crashes when the airliner rudder reversed, and recommended that the problem be fixed by making the rudder system redundant. "It's about time," says TIME reporter Jerry Hannifin.

More than 3,100 Boeing 737's are currently in service worldwide. Over the years, says Hannifin, "there have been dozens and dozens of pilot reports and complaints about rudder problems." Some safety changes were made as a result of the complaints, including new equipment and better pilot training, but these were simply "Band-Aid fixes," says Hannifin, adding: "The real question here is why today's recommendations were not mandated by the government at least four years ago." Critics of the government and the industry wonder whether money is not behind the delay. Not only will reengineering the rudder system cost Boeing millions, but refitting the planes will require sidelining some of the world's most frequent flyers. And that's without even considering the potential for litigation.