Southwest sought more time for engine inspections
Southwest Airlines sought more time last year to inspect fan blades like the one that snapped off during one of its flights Tuesday in an engine failure that left a passenger dead.
The airline opposed a recommendation by the engine manufacturer to require ultrasonic inspections of certain fan blades within 12 months, saying it needed more time to conduct the work.
Southwest made the comments last year after U.S. regulators proposed making the inspections mandatory. The Federal Aviation Administration has not yet required airlines to conduct the inspections but said late Wednesday it would do so in the next two weeks.
The manufacturer’s recommendation for more inspections followed an engine blowup on a 2016 Southwest flight. On Tuesday, an engine on another Southwest jet exploded over Pennsylvania, and debris hit the plane.
The plane, a Boeing 737 bound from New York to Dallas with 149 people aboard, made an emergency landing in Philadelphia.
Passenger Jennifer Riordan, a 43-year-old banking executive and mother of two from Albuquerque, N.M., was sucked partway out of the jet when a window shattered. She died later from her injuries, which the Philadelphia medical examiner said was blunt-impact injuries to her head, neck and torso.
Federal investigators are trying to determine how the plane’s window came out. Riordan, who was in a window seat in Row 14, was wearing a seat belt.
Investigators said the blade that broke off mid-flight and triggered the fatal accident was showing signs of metal fatigue: microscopic cracks from repeated use.
The National Transportation Safety Board also blamed metal fatigue for the engine failure on a Southwest plane in Florida in 2016 that was able to land safely.
That led manufacturer CFM International, a joint venture of General Electric Co. and France’s Safran SA, to recommend in June 2017 that airlines conduct ultrasonic inspections of fan blades on Boeing 737s.
The FAA proposed making the recommendation mandatory in August but never issued a final decision.
On Wednesday, the FAA said it would issue a directive in the next two weeks to require the ultrasonic inspections of fan blades on some CFM56-7B engines after they reach a certain number of takeoffs and landings. Blades that fail inspection would need to be replaced.
Until the FAA issues its rule it is not clear how many planes would be affected. Last year, the FAA estimated that an order would cover 220 engines on U.S. airlines. That number could be higher because more engines have hit the flights threshold.
Southwest announced its own program for similar inspections of its 700-plane fleet over the next month. United Airlines said Wednesday it has begun inspecting some of its planes. American Airlines has about 300 planes with that type of engine. Delta has about 185.
Tuesday’s emergency broke a string of eight straight years without a fatal accident involving a U.S. airliner.
It is unknown whether the FAA’s original directive would have forced Southwest to quickly inspect the engine that blew up.
Southwest CEO Gary Kelly said the plane was inspected Sunday and nothing appeared out of order. A spokeswoman said it was a visual inspection.
NTSB chairman Robert Sumwalt said, however, the kind of wear where the fan blade broke would not have been visible just by looking.