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Southwest Airlines is likely to maintain its dominance in California despite fatal accident, experts say

Southwest Airlines is likely to maintain its dominance in California despite fatal accident, experts say
A National Transportation Safety Board investigator examines the damaged engine of the Southwest Airlines plane that made an emergency landing in Philadelphia. (NTSB)

The fatal accident onboard a Southwest Airlines flight may scare off some jittery passengers but won't keep the company from continuing to dominate as California's most popular carrier.

That was the consensus of industry experts after Tuesday's engine failure on a flight from New York to Dallas that resulted in the first passenger death in the 51-year history of the low-cost carrier — and the first accident-related fatality onboard a U.S. commercial airline in nine years.

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Southwest Airlines has a strong reputation for safe flying, say aviation experts, who predict the carrier is unlikely to suffer any long-term drop in demand.

"This is such a freakish incident that it might make some people jittery for a while, but it won't keep most people from flying," said Barry Schiff, an aviation safety consultant and former pilot with TWA.

Still, the Dallas-based carrier could face repercussions if there is evidence that the airline knew about the engine's vulnerability to failure and resisted efforts to address it in the past, say airline safety experts and analysts.

"If it's seen that this problem has existed and that there is dragging of the feet by those responsible, it could backfire," said Henry Harteveldt, an airline analyst with Atmosphere Research Group.

The Federal Aviation Administration announced late Wednesday that it will issue a directive within the next two weeks requiring airlines to inspect the fan blades on the type of engines that failed in Tuesday's accident.

Federal safety officials said the engine that failed on Tuesday's flight had signs of metal fatigue, which was a problem also cited in a similar accident involving a 737 Southwest plane in 2016.

Both failures involved the same CFM 56 engine developed by CFM International, a French-U.S. joint venture between GE Aviation of Ohio and Safran Aircraft Engines of France.

The joint venture has delivered 30,000 of the engines since they entered service in the 1990s, including 8,000 on Boeing 737s worldwide. The engine is considered highly reliable but now Southwest, along with United Airlines and American Airlines, have already begun or plan to launch new inspections of the engines.

American said it began inspections after federal officials proposed a close examination last year but had yet to make it a requirement. United officials say they began inspections in response to a service bulletin but they did not elaborate. United Airlines has 698 planes with the CFM engine.

The engine failure sent shrapnel into the fuselage of the plane, which was carrying 144 passengers and five crew members, forcing an emergency landing in Philadelphia. Jennifer Riordan, a bank executive and mother of two from New Mexico, was fatality injured after being sucked partway out of a broken window.

She is the first passenger to be killed in a U.S. airline accident since 2009, when a Colgan Air commuter jet crashed near Buffalo, N.Y., killing all 49 passengers and crew as well as one person on the ground. The Colgan crash took place only three years after a prior fatal air crash involving a U.S. commercial airliner.

In response to the Colgan accident, the FAA adopted new rules that increased the experience level required of commercial pilots and mandated more rest for pilots in between shifts, among other changes.

"It's been almost a decade since we've had a single fatality in U.S. airspace," said Mark Gerchick, the former chief counsel of the Federal Aviation Administration. "That is unbelievable given the number of fliers who travel every year."

A record 965 million airline passengers flew on commercial airlines in the United States last year, a 3.4% increase over 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

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Worldwide, accident rates have dropped to a record low due primarily to safety improvements among airlines in Africa and South America, according to the International Civil Aviation Organization, a branch of the United Nations.

The latest Southwest accident comes as the U.S. airline industry reports near-record profits, thanks to robust demand and relatively low fuel costs.

Southwest reported record annual profit last year of $2.1 billion on annual revenue of $3.5 billion. United on Wednesday reported profit of $147 million in the first three months of 2018, up from $99 million in the same period last year.

The airline industry has gained healthy profits thanks to mergers that have cut competition, plus newer more efficient planes, such as the Boeing 737, one of the most widely used jets in the world. Southwest has a fleet of more than 700 of the planes.

National Transportation Safety Board investigators found indications of metal fatigue, an area of weakness caused by repeated bending, where a fan blade on the engine was missing, NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said in a briefing Tuesday night.

The accident closely resembles an incident Aug. 27, 2016, when an engine failed on a 737-700 flown by Southwest Airlines, sending engine parts into the fuselage. But in that incident — during a flight from Louisiana to Orlando, Fla. — the debris did not penetrate the cabin or injure any passengers.

The cabin depressurized and the pilots made an emergency landing at another Florida airport. An investigation by the NTSB concluded that a fan made of a titanium alloy in the engine suffered a "fatigue crack."

In response to the 2016 incident, European regulators last month ordered inspections of the CFM 56 engine. A year ago the NTSB responded by proposing a rule that would call for inspections of the engines — but the rule has yet to be adopted.

The directive coming from the FAA will require airlines to inspect the blades on CFM 56 engines that have surpassed a certain number of takeoffs and landings. Any blade that fails the inspections must be replaced, the FAA said.

Gerchick noted that the FAA could have ordered an immediate inspection of all CFM engines on 737 jets after the 2016 accident if the agency had concluded that the engines posed a threat to passenger safety.

Southwest Chief Executive Gary Kelly said after Tuesday's accident that the carrier hopes to complete within 30 days inspections of its entire fleet of CFM 56 engines.

CFM said Wednesday that "out of an abundance of caution, the ultrasonic inspections are being conducted on a population of fan blades" inside the engines. The company said it was deploying about 40 technicians to help Southwest complete its inspection of the engines.

Southwest has become the nation's biggest domestic carrier — and the most popular airline for California fliers — by offering low fares and no fees for the first two checked bags and by focusing its service on midsize cities including Burbank, San Diego, Oakland and San Jose.

Southwest flies from 10 airports throughout California, with more than 700 daily departures, the most departures than any other state in the Southwest network.

Any long-term effects to air travel in the U.S. and the reputation of Southwest Airlines will depend on how quickly and professionally the industry responds to the calls for inspections and, possibly, repairs, experts say.

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"The American traveling public is pretty mature by now and this is not going to discourage anyone from flying except maybe a very small minority of people," said Robert Ditchey, an airline consultant and former maintenance executive for Pan American Airlines.

Bloomberg was used in compiling this report.

To read more about the travel and tourism industries, follow @hugomartin on Twitter.

UPDATES:

6:30 p.m.: This article was updated with a report of an FAA announcement requiring engine inspections.

4:25 p.m.: This article was updated throughout with additional accident details, background on prior engine failures and comments from airline officials and industry experts.

6:08 p.m.: This article was updated to include the news that the FAA plans to require airlines to inspect airplanes with the type engines involved in Tuesday's accident.

This article was originally published at 11:45 a.m.

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