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Boeing’s Other Fatal Accident Forces Upgrades to 7,000 Planes

Boeing’s Other Fatal Accident Forces Upgrades to 7,000 Planes
Joe Cortez

Findings by the National Transportation Safety Board suggest Boeing needs to retrofit the engine fan cowls on all existing 737 Next-Generation aircraft. Over one year after the fatal accident aboard Southwest Airlines Flight 1380, the investigative body issued seven new safety recommendations, including a revisit of the structural integrity of the aircraft parts.

Over a year after Jennifer Riordan was killed aboard Southwest Airlines Flight 1380 due to a fan-blade-out incident, the National Transportation Safety Board wants Boeing to reconsider the fan cowls on all of their 737 Next-Generation aircraft. The aircraft accident report was released during a public meeting on Nov. 19, 2019.

Probable cause: “in-flight separation of fan cowl components”

In the seven-page report, the NTSB outlined the situation aboard Southwest Airlines Flight 1380, a flight operating on April 17, 2018, from LaGuardia International Airport (LGA) in New York to Dallas Love Field (DAL) in Texas. After takeoff, the left CFM International engine experienced a catastrophic failure when one of the 24 fan blades broke from its root, causing a chain of events that lead to Southwest’s only passenger fatality.

“This impact led to the in-flight separation of fan cowl components, including the inboard fan cowl aft latch keeper,” the NTSB concluded as “probable cause” of the accident. “Which struck the fuselage near a cabin window and caused the window to depart from the airplane, the cabin to rapidly depressurize, and the passenger fatality.”

Members of the NTSB infer that while the incident could not have been predicted, it may be preventable in the future. While initial fan-blade-out testing of the CFM International engine in question performed differently during certification testing, the board believes the engine cowling may also play a part in the chain of events.

“It is important to go beyond routine examination of fan blades,” NTSB chairman Robert Sumwalt said in a press release. “The structural integrity of the engine nacelle components for various airframe and engine combinations needs to be ensured.”

Safety recommendations issued to Boeing and Southwest

In the report, the NTSB praised the quick actions of the flight crew, noting that their qualifications and medical conditions played no part in the incident. In addition, the board noted that the pilots appropriately balanced “the procedural requirement of executing checklists with the high workload associated with maintaining airplane control and accomplishing a safe and timely descent and landing,” noting their choice of an emergency landing at Philadelphia International Airport (PHL) was appropriate.

However, both Boeing and Southwest Airlines received safety recommendations from the incident. In recommendations to the Federal Aviation Administration, the NTSB tasked the Chicago-based manufacturer to: “…determine the critical fan blade impact location(s) on the CFM56-7B engine fan case and redesign the fan cowl structure on all Boeing 737 next-generation series airplanes to ensure the structural integrity of the fan cowl after a fan-blade-out event.” Once this was complete, the NTSB recommended Boeing require the new fan cowls to be installed on all currently operating 737 next-generation aircraft and future airframe builds.

For Southwest, the NTSB asked the airline to revisit safety training for flight crew, especially in regards to sitting in jumpseats in case an emergency evacuation was required. The NTSB findings discovered all three flight attendants were not in their jump seats prior to landing. The board concluded Southwest should “Include the lessons learned from the accident involving Southwest Airlines flight 1380 in initial and recurrent flight attendant training, emphasizing the importance of being secured in a jumpseat during emergency landings.”

Difficult times for the Boeing 737 program

In a statement, Boeing once again affirmed their dedication to safety and announced they would comply with the NTSB recommendations. Although current aircraft are safe to operate, Boeing noted they would work with CFM International and other builders on fan blade inspection recommendations and enhance their fan cowl designs. According to sales data provided by Boeing, this retrofit could affect over 7,000 aircraft built through October 2019.

“All 737 [next-generations] are safe to continue operating normally as the issue is completely mitigated by the fan blade inspections,” the company said in a press statement. “In addition, Boeing is working on the design enhancements to fully address the safety recommendation from the NTSB. Once approved by the FAA, that design change will be implemented in the existing [next-generation] fleet over the longer term. This issue is limited to the 737 [next-generation] and does not affect the 737 MAX.”

The incident is the latest blow to the embattled 737 program, after the grounding of the 737 MAX due to two fatal accidents. While Boeing says the MAX will return to the skies, Southwest is considering adding other aircraft to the all-737 fleet over the grounding, while pushing the MAX return date back to Mar. 6, 2020, at the earliest.

Southwest has not made a public comment about the NTSB report.


[Image: Wikimedia Commons/National Transportation Safety Board]

View Comments (2)


  1. kc1174

    December 4, 2019 at 11:40 am

    The FAs were likely trying to save a life and ensure all pax were properly seated, but that’s just my own opinion. They obviously know they’re supposed to be seated for landing (emergency or not), so I guess there was a reason? Maybe the hole in the side of the plane?…
    As for the 737 program – this one was all CFM, the blades being painted so fractures were harder to see. Yes Boeing will improve the cowling but seriously – this is/was a CFM issue and Boeing are taking the flak. Surprised the NTSB didn’t recommend Boeing install better windows and window support to ensure they don’t fall out when a CFM blade separates..

  2. bigal4u

    December 4, 2019 at 9:27 pm

    Having flown many thousands of miles, I NEVER take off my seat belt, unless visiting the toilet!!

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