Southwest Airlines Co. reinforces engine inspections as the discount carrier known for its peculiar joviality and strong safety record deals with the consequences of its first accident killing a passenger.
Ultrasonic examinations of the fan blades On its CFM56 engines will be completed within 30 days, Southwest said. The airline, which operates the world's largest fleet of Boeing 737 jetliners, relies on the turbofan to power its more than 700 aircraft.
The National Transportation Safety Board found evidence of metal fatigue, an area of weakness caused by repeated bending where a fan blade was missing on the engine, NTSB chairman Robert Sumwalt said in a late Tuesday statement. A woman died after a shrapnel from the explosion, which raced through a window about 20 minutes after the flight from New York to Dallas.
"This is a very sad day, and on behalf of the entire Southwest family, I deeply wish to deeply apprehend the family and relatives of the deceased customer," said Gary Kelly, Southwest's Chief Executive Officer, to reporters in an auditorium called Freedom Hall spoke at the Southwest headquarters in Dallas. "We will do everything in our power to support them in this difficult time and in the difficult days."
Death was the first death in flight due to an accident in the 47-year history of the Southwest. That does not include an episode of 2005, when one of the jets slid off a snow-covered runway onto a Chicago street and killed a six-year-old boy in a car.
Federal investigator along with teams of technical experts from Boeing and engine manufacturer CFM International, a company owned by General Electric Co. and France Safran SA, gather clues about what caused the accident ,
The CFM turbofan, one of the most widely used jet engines, has collected more than 350 million flight hours on 6,700 aircraft since entering the market in 1997.
There was "just a handful" of engine failure, Kelly said. It would be "premature to even link it to other engine failures that have occurred."
Southwest has more than 500 Boeing 737-700 jets, the aircraft variant that was involved in the incident. While Southwest's average flights are getting longer as the company has become # 4 in the US airline, the airline is still known for operating more short-hauls than full-service airlines with flights crossing oceans. The relatively high number of take-offs and landings additionally puts a strain on the aircraft and engines.
"Every time you run such a motor at maximum power and hold it at startup for a few minutes, you put all on maximum load on the rotating parts," said John Nance, a former airline and military pilot. "You can not deny that the more you turn up an engine when you start, the more you emphasize those blades."
The stress caused by the aluminum frames on Southwest's 737 jets was highlighted after a hole in mid-2011 tore the fuselage skin of an airplane in mid-flight. Metal fatigue was later linked to the engineering used by Boeing workers to assemble the family of aircraft that Southwest retired last year.
Investigators also want to know if there is a connection between the engine outbreak on Tuesday and an uncontrolled engine failure that shrapnel spread on a southwest plane across the Gulf of Mexico in 2016, Sumwalt said.
In this aircraft, also a 737-700, a fan blade crashed on a jet engine and sent debris pounded in the fuselage, NTSB investigators noted. They found evidence of a crack that is "consistent" with metal fatigue in the titanium alloy blade. The jet had to make an emergency landing in Pensacola, Florida, after parts of the left engine had been torn apart and damaged the fuselage, wings and tail. The plane lost cabin pressure and passengers tweet images of themselves with oxygen masks.
Modern jet engines contain a series of rotating fans and when one of them breaks, it can eject blades and other metal waste at high speed. Engine manufacturers and airlines carry out regular inspections on aircraft aimed at detecting signs of cracking or weakening of the metal due to fatigue.
After the last accident, Kelly said Southwest would "work with the NTSB to make sure that we understand the cause and any further action we need to take regarding maintenance or inspections will be added to our program.
The airline's shares fell 1.1 percent to $ 54.27 at the close in New York, after losing as much as 3.1
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"Southwest is a close and attentive company," said David Greenberg, founder of Compass Group Aviation Consulting. "They will first focus on the needs of the survivors, both the uninjured and those who have lost a family member, the internal people take it very, very seriously, and they will support each other as they continue the investigation."  The latest incident marks a tragic milestone for an airline that can boast a strong safety record, said Bob Mann, a former airline manager who today manages aviation consultant RW Mann & Co.
Although the situation is not long-term Impact on Southwest's business, the company faces a critical test in handling the situation.
"They responded very well," Mann said, citing Kelly's first comments. "I think they did it very professionally – not clinically, but in terms of the kind of personalized relationship they would like to have with their clients."
– With support from Rick Clough