By Ashley Halsey III / The Washington Post
Southwest Airlines has completed the federally mandated inspection of 35,000 engine fan blades like the one that disintegrated in a fatal accident last month without finding additional flaws, but Southwest CEO Gary Kelly said Wednesday that “a handful” of blades had been sent to the manufacturer for further examination.
Southwest said the blades were sent to engine maker General Electric out of “an abundance of caution” because of “coating anomalies” on the blades, and not because they showed any sign of metal fatigue.
“I don’t think we’ll have any [negative] findings with those,” Kelly said in talking with reporters after Southwest held its annual meeting in Annapolis.
A Southwest passenger, Jennifer Riordan, 43, a bank executive and mother of two from Albuquerque, New Mexico, was killed April 17 when an engine fan fractured near its hub in a spray of metal fragments that shattered her window as the Boeing 737 climbed to cruising altitude.
Riordan’s plane, Flight 1380, which was taking her home from a trip to New York, made an emergency landing in Philadelphia.
Kelly said the fan blade in the fatal fracture had not been tested under the more rigorous standards Southwest implemented after a virtually identical engine fan fracture almost two years ago.
In August 2016, on a Southwest flight from New Orleans to Atlanta, one of 24 blades on the twin-engine 737 broke off, punctured the fuselage just above the wing and depressurized the cabin. No one was reported injured.
“The inspections since then are different than the inspections that were occurring prior to the 2016 event,” Kelly said. “We are doing very frequent inspections [now], even though the fatigue of these blades is indeed rare, and though we have no findings from these most recent inspections, we will continue to do them.”
Since the 2016 incident, Southwest has been conducting ultrasonic examination of its fan blades. If that test suggests a problem, the fan blade is sent to GE for what is known as an eddy-current test, a process that uses electromagnetic induction to uncover subsurface flaws in metal.
Kelly said the fan blade in question had logged about 40,000 flights, about 10,000 of them since it last was inspected by GE.
“It had not been through an inspection with the ultrasonic or the eddy-current test,” Kelly said. “It would have been up for inspection later in 2018.”
He said the cracks in the 2016 incident and the April fatality were very similar.
“The stress was in the same, logical place toward the root of the fan blade,” Kelly said.
He said that Southwest had to cancel about 500 flights to carry out the inspections.
“The engine inspections are complete. The [negative] findings have been zero,” Kelly said.
Kelly said in the aftermath of the April incident he expected revenue to be down between 1 and 2 percent in the second quarter.
“Our flights are very full,” he said. “I think we’ve been gratified by the kind of support we’ve gotten from our customers.”
The company regularly entices its customers to fly, emailing its frequent flier members with several marquee sales events each year. It began another discount airfare event this month in an effort to bounce back from the incident.
“With this sale we go back into the market with full marketing efforts for the first time since Flight 1380 and are giving our direct distribution model a boost in order to stimulate bookings to our website,” said Southwest spokeswoman Thais Hanson at the annual meeting.
In the aftermath of the April fatality, the FAA ordered all airlines that fly the Boeing 737 to inspect the engines within 20 days.
The FAA mandate required inspection of fan blades on certain CFM56-7B engines, which are used on the workhorse Boeing 737 flown by virtually all airlines.
The first Southwest passenger fatality and the first aboard a commercial airline in more than nine years undermined what otherwise would have been a more buoyant annual meeting, with Kelly telling shareholders the airline had recorded record profits and planned to add Hawaii to its destinations later this year or early in 2019.
“This has been a somber time for us,” he said in talking with reporters afterward. “We’ve been doing all we can to support the Riordan family.”
The Washington Post’s Rachel Siegel contributed to this report.