Top federal lawmaker urges FAA to study engine safety after fatal Southwest Airlines accident
WASHINGTON — A top federal lawmaker is urging the Federal Aviation Administration to study engine safety in the aftermath of last week's fatal accident on a Southwest Airlines flight.
The call came a day before it was revealed that the engine's manufacturer was considering updated inspection guidelines in the weeks ahead of the accident that would have included the engine that failed on Southwest Flight 1380.
Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., chairman of the House transportation committee, included his request in the "manager's amendment" released late Monday for a sweeping House bill that would reauthorize the FAA.
The overarching legislation, which covers all manner of aviation issues, is slated to get a vote in the House this week. It could provide lawmakers an early opportunity to weigh in on the U.S. commercial aviation industry's first accident-related on-board fatality since 2009.
The Shuster amendment would direct the FAA to initiate, within 90 days of the bill's enactment, a "call to action safety review on airline engine safety."
Among the required contents: a review of FAA rules, guidance and directives on airline engine design, production, operation and maintenance; a review of "reportable accidents and incidents involving airline engines" in the last five years; and a process for stakeholder feedback.
"A terrible tragedy," Shuster told Roll Call last week. "And one life is too much, but air travel is extremely safe."
If included in the FAA re-authorization bill — and ultimately passed into law — the push would mark one of the more substantive congressional responses to the air tragedy.
The accident fatality, the first in Southwest's history, came after an engine failed on a flight from New York to Dallas. A fan blade on one of the plane's CFM56-7B engines broke off, causing debris to hit the plane and resulting in a blown-out window.
The incident has cast a spotlight on the airline industry's maintenance and safety track record after nine years without a fatal accident, the longest stretch without a death in National Transportation Safety Board records that date to 1982.
Southwest's record includes 41 reported maintenance violations resulting in fines totaling $11.6 million from the FAA since 2000, based on agency data collected by Good Jobs First, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit focused on corporate accountability. Those figures include 15 fines levied against AirTran Airways, acquired by Southwest in 2011, totaling $167,500.
The majority of Southwest's fines came from two incidents. The company paid $7.5 million in 2009 after being cited by the FAA for continuing to fly 46 Boeing 737 jets after they were due for mandatory safety inspections.
The company paid $2.8 million in 2017 to settle claims dating to 2009 that a third-party contractor hired by Southwest had improperly performed fuselage repairs on 44 aircraft.
Of the remaining 39 maintenance-related fines levied against Southwest since 2000, 37 were for less than $100,000.
Southwest completes inspections
Attention in the case of Southwest Flight 1380 has keyed on how frequently fan blades on the CFM56-7B engines are inspected, and whether those efforts should have been sped up in the wake of a similar 2016 incident on a Southwest flight.
In that case, a flight from New Orleans to Orlando, Fla., was forced to make an emergency landing when a fan blade broke off from its engine. No passengers were reported injured.
After the incident, the engine's manufacturer in March 2017 recommended inspections of older engines believed to have aging fan blades, with an update in July that outlined specific fan blades to be inspected.
The engine in last week's accident had not reached the number of takeoffs and landings to warrant inspection based on the manufacturer's updated guidelines. On Tuesday, Bloomberg reported that another draft service bulletin from the manufacturer circulating in the weeks before the accident would have recommended inspection of the engine involved in the Flight 1380 accident.
That bulletin was formally released last week, and was incorporated into an emergency airworthiness directive issued Friday by the FAA requiring inspection of fan blades with more than 30,000 takeoffs and landings within 20 days. The engine on Flight 1380 has about 40,000 takeoffs and landings, but only 10,000 since its last overhaul.
A spokesman for the manufacturer, CFM International, told Bloomberg that the proposal was part of a process to gather data on an extremely rare failure of the part, not because of any signs of an impending threat of fan blade failures.
Southwest said Tuesday that it had completed inspections of all 260 engines covered by the FAA's emergency directive, but did not say if or how many blades were replaced.
Southwest said it began recurring inspections on all of its fan blades after every 3,000 takeoffs and landings in November. After last week's accident, the carrier is inspecting the remaining blades in its fleet of about 700 aircraft, the overwhelming majority of which are outfitted with CFM56-7B engines, within 30 days.
Lawmakers have so far taken a mostly wait-and-see approach, particularly since an investigation by the NTSB is expected to take some time.
At least one Democratic representative has called for a hearing on aviation safety. Senate Commerce Chairman John Thune told Politico this week that "at the moment, everybody is trying to gather all the facts and figure it out to see what went wrong."
"We'll make decisions about that going forward," the Republican said.