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Southwest Airlines Engine Failure Under Investigation

In the wake of the engine failure on Southwest Airlines flight 1380, the air carrier has canceled numerous flights to allow for engine inspections. The incident caused the death of one passenger on the plane, while multiple others suffered injuries. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is investigating what caused the engine failure, which set about a chain of events that led to the first death on a U.S. airline in nine years.

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NTSB Classified the Southwest Flight 1380 Event as "Engine Failure" 

The terrifying ordeal began about 30 minutes into Southwest Airlines flight 1380 from LaGuardia Airport in New York City. The Boeing 737-700 was on its way to Dallas with more than 145 people on board when part of the plane's engine blew apart, sending a portion of the engine into, and shattering, a window. The gaping hole left by the shattered window caused the immediate loss of cabin pressure, and also caused the airplane to sharply bank and dive. Meanwhile, a woman seated adjacent to the broken window was partially pulled through the window to the outside. Heroic efforts by her fellow passengers pulled her back into the plane. Jennifer Riordan, a 43-year-old mother of two, later died of her injuries. The Philadelphia medical examiner listed Riordan's cause of death as blunt impact trauma to the head, neck and torso.

Initially following the incident, the NTSB classified the accident as "engine failure." The agency noted that fan blade 13, which showed signs of metal fatigue, snapped off the engine.

In an initial statement following the engine failure, NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said an interior crack in the fan blade caused the blade to snap off, but that the crack was "certainly not detectable from looking at it from the outside." The blade showed signs of two cracks following the incident. Mechanics use X-ray machines to check for hidden cracks, but an inspection of the engine involved in the failure was not scheduled until December.

This catastrophe is properly classified as an "uncontained" engine failure. This is because the engine's design is required to contain within it any event such as the failure of one of its fan blades. It is this failure that allowed the broken blade to crash into the window where Ms. Riordan was sitting, leading to the injuries that caused her death.

This event is at least the second time that a Southwest Boeing 737 has suffered an uncontained engine failure consisting of a broken fan blade that escaped the confines of the engine.

The engine on the Boeing 737 was a CFM International 56-7B turbofan. The NTSB's investigation will include examining the engine's maintenance records to look for indicators of negligence.

Southwest Airlines Facing Allegations of Safety Violations 

According to an Associated Press report, Southwest Airlines faced numerous allegations of safety violations. Among those accusations were allegations that Southwest pressured maintenance workers to keep planes in the air even if it meant cutting corners to do so. An investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) found that workers had such severe mistrust of their management that safety could be affected. For example, a worker who found a serious safety risk was disciplined for doing work outside of his assigned tasks.

In 2009, the FAA fined Southwest $7.5 million for allowing 46 planes to fly without the required metal fatigue inspections. A 2014 proposed FAA fine for $12 million was lowered to $2.8 million when Southwest settled allegations that more than 40 planes had improper repairs to their fuselage.

Southwest airplanes could be at increased risk of wear and tear because they make shorter, more frequent flights than other airlines. The Associated Press notes that Southwest aircraft make an average of 5.3 flights per day, while other airlines have a daily average of between 2.8 and 3.4. That many takeoffs and landings can be hard on a plane over time.

Southwest Cancels or Delays Hundreds of Boeing 737 Flights for Engine Inspections

In the wake of the Southwest Airlines engine failure, the air carrier announced it would conduct emergency inspections of its other Boeing 737s. The airline said it was conducting the inspections out of an "abundance of caution" and not because of an FAA directive that required inspections on the type of engine involved in the explosion.

The FAA and CFM International called for ultrasonic inspections of engines that had at least 30,000 takeoffs and landings. Those inspections were to be carried out within 20 days. According to the FAA, 352 domestically-flown planes and 681 flown internationally are affected by the directive. Southwest has said it will inspect all its engines, not just those that are over the 30,000-cycle limit.

Pilots Praised for their Actions in Southwest Airlines Engine Failure 

Passengers and investigators alike praised the pilots of Southwest Airlines Flight 1380, saying they maintained their calm, landed the plane safely and reassured passengers following the accident.

"The pilots seemed very calm and assured of what they were doing," Sumwalt said during the media briefing. "My hat is off to them...they behaved in a [manner] their training would prepare them for."

The NTSB is investigating the Southwest Airlines engine failure, but the investigation is expected to take months.

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