As the National Transportation Safety Board continues to investigate what caused an engine explosion on a Southwest flight that led to the death of a passenger earlier this week, Reuters reported the airlines fought against new inspections rules proposed by the engine manufacturer.
In September 2016, a Southwest flight suffered a similar engine explosion that resulted from a broken fan blade and tore a nearly foot-long hole into the wing of the aircraft, which forced to make an emergency landing. In response to the incident, engine maker CFM International—a joint venture between General Electric’s GE Aviation and Safran Aircraft Engines—issued a technical bulletin advising airlines to conduct more frequent inspections.
A year later, the Federal Aviation Administration took under advisement the notice from CFM and proposed a rule that would have elevated the inspections from recommended to required.
According to the FAA, the new airworthiness directives (AD) would cost about $170 per engine and would require about two hours of labor. The government agency estimated it would cost airlines about $78,200 for about 480 hours worth of labor to complete the inspections. It would have also required the checks be completed within 12 months.
While the proposal gained the support of the Air Line Pilots Association, which represents more than 60,000 pilots in the US and Canada, Southwest—a company that posted a total revenue of $21.2 billion in 2017—opposed the rule change, taking issue with the government’s math and proposed timetable for the inspections:
SWA does NOT support the CFM comment on reducing compliance time to 12 months. SWA estimates there are 732 engines in the SWA population. Compliance time of 18 months will be needed to schedule and complete the required ultrasonic inspections. CFM’s risk assessment... did not take credit for the number of fan blades already inspected in the fleet and the findings rate. SWA requests this risk assessment be updated to make a more data-informed AD mandated compliance time.
Southwest was not alone in its opposition to the airworthiness directive. A comment from low-cost British airline Jet2 called the proposed rule “an unnecessary addition to our maintenance program.” American Airlines and United made similar arguments.
Despite the public comment period ending in October 2017 for the proposed rule change, the FAA has yet to make any final determination. European Aviation Safety Agency announced last month that it is considering adopting a similar rule based on CFM’s recommendations following the 2016 incident.
It isn’t clear if making the inspections mandatory would have prevented the explosion that occurred this week. Southwest told Reuters the company satisfied CFM’s recommendations despite its opposition to the FAA’s rule, though the company did not disclose whether the failed engine had been inspected.
A spokesperson from CFM International told Gizmodo that Southwest engine involved in the explosion “was not included in the identified population” from CFM’s service bulletin.
Rick Kennedy, the Manager for Media Relations at GE Aviation, told Gizmodo, “Southwest is being misrepresented by its commentary to the FAA. The airline never shirked from its duty to make the airline as safe as possible.”
The NTSB investigation should provide additional insight into whether the tragic incident that cost one passenger her life could have been prevented with additional inspections.
Update, April. 20, 5:40pm: A spokesperson from Southwest provided Gizmodo with the following statement:
As you may know, providing information during an NTSB event is a slow process. The comments you referenced were made during the normal rulemaking process that includes an industry-wide notice and comment period designed to further clarify a draft Airworthiness Directive (AD). Southwest’s comment regarding extended duration from 12 to 18 months was intended to allow for the necessary time it would take to locate individual, suspect blades within certain engines in order to comply with the Service Bulletins as written. Even though the AD has yet to be finalized, in 2017 Southwest satisfied the Service Bulletins recommendations by implementing a voluntary program to inspect all blades on the engines identified within the Service Bulletins. In addition, Southwest extended the inspection program to engine blades on all of its 700 and 800 aircraft, exceeding the Service Bulletin recommendations.