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U.S. probes cracks in Japan jets

From Mike Ahlers

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. aviation officials are monitoring a crack problem that has plagued MD-80 jet engines on Japan Air System, a unit of Japan Airlines System Corp.

Small cracks were found in 17 of the 34 engines inspected in Japan thus far, according to Mark Sullivan, a spokesman for Pratt & Whitney, which manufactures the engines. One of the twin-engine aircraft had cracks in both engines, he said.

The cause of the cracks is unknown, Sullivan said. Jet parts are being sent to the manufacturer's Connecticut headquarters for evaluation.

A Federal Aviation Administration spokesman said the FAA is keeping an eye on the situation but say it is too early to order inspections of similar jetliners in the United States.

"We are aware of the situation and if we believe any action is warranted on our part we certainly wouldn't hesitate to take it," spokesman Les Dorr said.

Pratt & Whitney said the problem was discovered after two Japan Airline pilots reported engine vibrations during flights January 6 and 7. In each case, the pilots concluded the flight without incident.

Mechanics found a crack in a vane -- small, stationary blade -- in the 8th stage of the compressor on the jet engine.

The company has not yet determined the cause of the cracks before deciding whether to broaden the inspections to other airlines.

"Engineers have an old line that you don't want to go after something until you know what you're going after," Sullivan said.

If there were a complete failure of the part, the engine is designed to contain the damage, and the plane is designed to fly on only one engine, he said.

Pratt & Whitney says it has notified operators of MD-80s worldwide about the issue and is keeping them updated about the progress of the inspections. It expects to finish inspections of the Japan Airlines fleet on Wednesday.

The JT8D-200 Pratt & Whitney engine is the only engine used on the MD-80 series aircraft, and there are more than 1,000 of the aircraft worldwide.

Of the 4,652 aircraft flown by major U.S. airlines, 554 are MD-80s, according to figures compiled in late 2002.

American Airlines flies the most MD-80s of any airline; they comprise 362 of its 819 aircraft, according to the 2002 figures. Delta has 120 of the planes, Alaska has 31, Continental has 29 and Midwest 12.

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