Southwest Fatality First for a U.S. Airline in 9 Years

By and | April 17, 2018

One passenger was killed when an engine blew out on a Southwest Airlines Co. jetliner carrying 149 people, marking the first fatality on a U.S.-registered airline in more than nine years.

The plane, bound for Dallas from New York’s LaGuardia airport, made an emergency landing at Philadelphia International Airport shortly after 11 a.m. on Tuesday. Seven people suffered minor injuries.

“This is a sad day,” Southwest Chief Executive Officer Gary Kelly said on a video released by the company. “On behalf of the whole Southwest family, I want to extend our deepest sympathies to the family and loved ones of our deceased customer.”

The dead passenger was not identified but other passengers reported a woman being severely injured during the flight and receiving aid from other passengers in a chaotic and bloody scene.

The cabin suddenly lost pressure when engine debris pierced a window and flight attendants began crying, one passenger, Marty Martinez, founder and chief executive officer of Social Revolt digital marketing in Dallas, said in an interview.

“When we saw that they started crying, of course we thought we were in a really bad place. We were going down,” Martinez said. The woman who was injured “made no noise at all,” he said.

Nine-Year Record

The death shattered an unprecedented string of more than nine years without an accident-related fatality on a U.S. passenger airline. National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Robert Sumwalt confirmed the fatality at a press conference as he was set to depart from Washington to Philadelphia with a team of investigators.

The last fatal accident involving a U.S.-registered carrier occurred near Buffalo, New York, on Feb. 12, 2009, when a commuter carrier operated by Colgan Air crashed, killing 49 people on board and a man on the ground.

The NTSB has secured the Southwest plane’s two black box, crash-proof recorders and plans to ship them to its lab in Washington on Tuesday night, Sumwalt said. The agency is sending experts in engines, airline operations and passenger survival issues, he said.

Southwest revised the total of people on board the flight late Tuesday, from 148 to 149 including five crewmembers.

Television feeds and photos posted on Twitter show the front of the left engine on the Boeing Co. 737-700 had been ripped open.

Plane Icing Before Crashing

The Federal Aviation Administration halted some arrivals and departures at the Philadelphia airport but reopened it shortly before 2 p.m., according to an agency website. The crew of the plane reported that it suffered damage to its fuselage and at least one window, according to the FAA.

The plane had been aloft for about 30 minutes when an explosion shattered the routine and oxygen masks descended from the ceiling, Martinez said. He and others took to social media, using the plane’s Wi-Fi connection, trying to leave final messages in case the plane crashed.

“I kind of just felt like it was over,” he said. “We’re flying at 30,000 feet going 500 miles an hour.”

Reports of shrapnel shattering a window suggest that the engine broke apart in what is known as an “uncontained” failure. U.S. regulations require engines to be covered in tough casings designed to prevent metal from flying into fuel tanks and passenger areas if an engine breaks apart.

Sumwalt said the NTSB doesn’t have enough information yet to call the failure uncontained.

CFM Engine

The plane in Tuesday’s emergency was powered by CFM56-7B engines, which are made by CFM International Inc., a joint venture between General Electric Co. and France’s Safran SA. CFM, the sole supplier of engines for 737-700 planes, said it has sent technical representatives to examine the plane.

The CFM engines are among the most widely used in the world, powering more than 6,700 aircraft for more than 350 million flight hours, CFM said in a statement.

The NTSB said in a tweet it was sending a team to investigate. The NTSB investigates the most serious engine failures and conducted a probe of a similar Southwest episode in 2016 involving the same type of engine.

In that incident, a fan blade snapped off a Southwest 737-700 engine in mid-flight, sending debris slamming into the plane and damaging the fuselage, wing and tail. Investigators with the NTSB later found evidence of a crack consistent with metal fatigue on the titanium-alloy blade. No one on the plane was hurt.

It’s not clear whether Tuesday’s engine failure was in any way related to the earlier episode, Sumwalt said.

While engine failures haven’t caused a major crash in the U.S. in decades, incidents that threaten safety continue to occur.

On Oct. 28, 2016, an engine on an American Airlines plane exploded on a Chicago runway as it was preparing to take off, triggering a massive blaze that melted one wing. A disk within the GE CF6-80 engine was later found to have a manufacturing defect, the NTSB said. Pieces of the spinning disk flew as far as 2,920 feet (890 meters), striking a warehouse. Theplane was a Boeing 767.

The 737-700 was delivered in August 2000 and only flown by Southwest, FAA records show. The model is the smallest jetliner currently manufactured by Boeing and is the heart of the airline’s all-737 fleet. The Texas carrier has hunted for used -700s in recent years as it parked an earlier version known as the 737 Classics.

Meanwhile, in an unrelated incident Tuesday, a Delta Connection flight from New York’s LaGuardia Airport diverted to Washington Dulles International Airport after experiencing a problem with a wheel.

A pilot for regional affiliate ExpressJet Airlines had just lifted off shortly before 11 a.m. when a wheel on the Bombardier CRJ700 had an unspecified problem, Delta spokesman Michael Thomas said. The pilot chose to land at the Washington-area airport instead of continuing on to its destination at Richmond, Virginia. The flight landed safely and without incident, an ExpressJet spokesman said.

–With assistance from Julie Johnsson, Richard Clough, Mary Schlangenstein and Susan Warren.

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