Not all engines fall off all their planes

This week, a passenger jet at 30,000 feet had an engine fail. One of the blades of the fan that rams air into the engine broke off, either from metal fatigue or because the cowl shrouding the engine came undone. Before it was over, metal was spraying everywhere, including through one window into the passenger compartment, fatally striking one passenger in the head and injuring several others.

Mysteries remain, and we will solve them and improve airline safety even further; this was the first airline fatality in nine years. Some of us remember when entire planes crashing were infrequent but regular, as car wrecks still are, one of the necessary risks of leaving home and going somewhere.

But this is discount Southwest Airlines, and it is the second failure of the same make of engine in two years. So — like United Airlines mistreating or misrouting dogs — the media are looking for a pattern, a meme, a way to write articles guaranteed to run on the Front Page.

Now Reuters has found one, and by merely reviewing documents in the wake of the (non-fatal) 2016 episode:

Southwest Airlines Co clashed with engine-maker CFM over the timing and cost of proposed inspections after a 2016 engine accident….Southwest thought the FAA had “vastly understated” the number of engines that would need to be inspected – and therefore the cost.

That is, in the post-failure period where regulators look for new procedures to try to prevent a recurrence of the failure — a part of which is estimating the cost of the new procedures — Southwest, which would be on the hook to pay those costs, protested that the estimate was faulty. If Southwest prevailed, it might have kept the study open, to look for less expensive adaptations.

But the implication is that Southwest selfishly wants to lower its own costs and keep offering the lowest fares in the industry, even when its public posture is supposed to be, “Spare no expense! If it saves Only One Life….”

A scandalous news article built around an unremarkable memo sends a bulletin out to every cub reporter to look for more cases of Southwest being cavalier with passenger safety out of the greedy desire to pinch pennies. It’s got everything except cute puppies.

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Rhoda Klapp
Rhoda Klapp

Journalist know everything. Never mind the FAA, any other civil aviation authority in another country, Boeing, CFM, GE, all 737 operators and Southwest themselves, journalists know how it all works. Any journo probably could easily crack-detect a fan blade using magnaflux and deal with the results.

(There is no endeavour which has more safety-conscious in the Western world which has more honesty and candour than airline aviation, AFAIK.)


Agree with Rhoda and I worked at an engine maintenance site for years, made me feel safer flying after working there


Southwest isn’t really a discount airline, its fares are pretty comparable to the traditional big carriers – American, United and Delta. Discount airlines in the US are Frontier, Allegient, Spirit.

Quentin Vole
Quentin Vole

That’s equally true in the UK. When I need to travel to a specific location at a specific time and I compare prices, my choice (when there is a choice) is usually determined by ease of getting to the airport, with the (usually minor) price differences very much secondary. Of course, the actual prices are far lower than they were a decade or two ago – and that’s largely down to the existence of the discount operators.