On Tuesday, April 17, 2018, a Southwest jet made an emergency landing at Philadelphia International Airport after a metal fan blade broke off an engine that caused a passenger to die. The accident ended a string of 8 years without a major U.S. airliner having a fatal accident.
The fatality resulted when the fan blade flew off from the engine, causing engine failure. Engine debris hit the plane from the outside, breaking a passenger’s window. The woman seated near the window was pulled partially out of the plane before she was pulled back in by other passengers. Two medical professionals on board attempted to save her, but the woman did not survive.
The plane, a Boeing 737 bound from New York to Dallas, Texas with 149 people on board, turned toward Philadelphia and made an emergency landing after the engine failed. Several other victims suffered from minor injuries.
Investigators now believe that the fan blade broke because it had gradually weakened over time. The Wall Street Journal reported that the combination of the blade’s failure and the “resulting vibrations” damaged the engine’s “cowling” or covering. One expert told WSJ that, “To have a single blade split the cowling like that is concerning.”
In 2016, a similar airline accident occurred on a Southwest plane. During that flight, the plane had to make an emergency landing in Florida. No one was injured thankfully. In both that case and in April’s accident, signs were present of metal fatigue on both engine fans, highlighting that there was an issue that may have been able to be detected ahead of time.
CFM, the manufacturer of the engine, recommended that Southwest perform an investigative safety check of every aircraft engine after the 2016 accident. Reuters reports that Southwest and other airlines objected to the proposed inspection schedule, saying they needed more time than the suggested 12 months to complete a thorough investigation.
Given this information, it’s possible that the recent incident could have been avoided had the inspections actually took place. The full investigation is still undergoing. From what is publicly available, it appears that Southwest has been on notice of this potential problem for almost 2 years. It does not appear that they conducted any inspection of the engine on the aircraft. The flying public deserves better than that.
All commercial airlines have a legal responsibility to ensure regular maintenance and safety checks take place to protect passengers from accidents and incidents like this. Commercial airlines owe their passengers the highest duty of care as common carriers for hire.