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southwest airlinesAfter canceling roughly 600 flights over the weekend, Southwest Airlines grounded an additional 70 flights today. Reuters reports that Southwest continues to cancel flights for the purpose of inspecting its Boeing 737 planes, one of which was forced to land prematurely on Friday due to loss of cabin pressurization caused by a hole in the plane.

According to the Southwest Airlines Web site, ongoing testing has resulted in the detection of “small cracks” in two planes in addition to the damaged Boeing 737 that was grounded on Friday. Such cracks are formed by repeated pressurization and depressurization over time, which causes stress on the body of the plane — and they’ve been known to bring down a flight, writes Salon.com. The infamous 1985 Japan Airlines 747 crash that killed 520 people was caused by a tear in the plane’s bulkhead.

This time, no one was hurt, with the exception of one flight attendant who sustained minor injuries when Southwest Airlines Flight 812 descended to its emergency landing. But hundreds of Southwest travelers have, without a doubt, been inconvenienced in the past few days. Fortunately, they’ll get their money back. In accordance with its policy on delays and cancellations, Southwest is offering passengers booked on delayed or canceled flights the option of rebooking travel at no charge or receiving a refund for the unused portion of the fare.

Southwest’s iron-clad customer service policy notwithstanding, the thought of flying in a plane with a hole or a crack is terrifying — and hard to forget. Regardless of whether these faulty planes are the airline’s fault, Southwest doesn’t look good.

This news comes on the heels of a succession of further problems plaguing the airline, including a fizzled launch of Southwest’s new Rapid Rewards program. (Several apologies for the debacle, during which a command center outage on top of a barely functional Web site caused headaches aplenty for Southwest customers, have been posted on the airline’s blog.) Southwest’s stock, reports The Wall Street Journal, plummeted by 3 percent today.

Can Southwest repair its reputation? Will you continue to fly with the airline?

– written by Caroline Costello

couple hammock beach romance vacation travelSo it’s Valentine’s Day. Did you get the Hallmark card yet? The roses? The conversation hearts? The free booze on Southwest Airlines?

Yes, according to a Tweet from the airline, Southwest is giving away free “adult drinks” on all flights. Ostensibly, it’s meant to promote the airline’s tweaks to its Rapid Rewards loyalty program, but it’s timed nicely to coincide with all the lonely hearts flitting around the country today. If you miss it, not to worry: The airline is repeating the promotion on St. Patrick’s Day (hmmm …).

If you’d rather save some money than suck down a gratis gin and tonic at 30,000 feet, Spirit Airlines is offering $50 off round-trip flights with a special holiday deal. But move fast: You have to book by 11:59 p.m. ET today and fly from February 17 through March 4. Isn’t it romantic?

If you prefer the sea to the air, several cruise lines are offering special enticements for those who book over the next few days. In a sale starting today, for instance, Azamara Club Cruises is offering a bonanza of extras (a $500 onboard credit, Champagne, strawberries) for passengers booking an outside or higher-category cabin on select European itineraries. Check out the details on this and several other promotions at our sister site, Cruise Critic.

If you’re as sick of this cold winter as the rest of us, Mexico may be beckoning. Book today and you can get 50 percent off rooms at the JW Marriott Cancun Resort or the CasaMagna Marriott Cancun Resort. You have to reserve by 11:59 tonight and use the promo code L9Z. Rates start at just $100 a night for travel through December 12, 2011.

Don’t leave home without our Seven Secrets for a More Romantic Trip.

– written by John Deiner

southwest airlines airplane air travel sky airlineTwo of the biggest discount airlines in the U.S. will merge next year when Southwest Airlines buys AirTran in a $1.4 billion deal, reports the Associated Press. The acquisition has been approved by the boards of both companies, but is still subject to shareholder and regulatory approval. Assuming everything goes through, the deal is expected to take effect in the first half of 2011.

What does this mean for travelers? Airline mergers typically spell reduced competition and higher fares — and this may well occur in cities where Southwest’s routes overlap with AirTran’s (such as Baltimore/Washington and Orlando). But there are a few silver linings too.

Travelers who’ve been waiting for Southwest to extend its low fares to cities outside the U.S. will get their wish; the airline will absorb AirTran’s current routes to Cancun, Punta Cana, Montego Bay and other vacation destinations in Mexico and the Caribbean. In total, Southwest will gain access to 37 new cities, including Atlanta — which has been the biggest hole in its network. The airline will also strengthen its existing presence in major cities like New York and Boston.

Perhaps the best news of all? Once the airlines are fully integrated, Southwest does not plan to keep AirTran’s checked baggage fees (currently $20 for the first bag and $25 for the second).

What do you think of the proposed merger — will it help or hurt travelers?

–written by Sarah Schlichter