At first, it seemed like a routine engine failure. Sure, the pictures coming off Southwest flight 1380 looked bad as did the panicked passenger response, but we’ve seen that plenty of times. It was only in February that a United 777 lost an engine cowling and those images looked just as bad. But the more we learned, the more the severity of this situation became clear. The window was knocked out by the debris from the engine, and one passenger was killed. Southwest’s crisis response team jumped into action, and it did a commendable job. But this is just the beginning of a long and difficult path.
Southwest has been flying for more than 45 years, and it has never lost a passenger due to an accident until this week. (Yes, a little boy was killed when a Southwest aircraft over-ran the runway in Chicago. Not that it’s a distinction that really matters, but he wasn’t on the airplane.) Like most big airlines, Southwest had a response plan in place, but it hadn’t been tested in a real-life accident like this. Heck, no US airline has been tested in this way since 2009 when Colgan Air had an aircraft crash in Buffalo.
This particular aircraft was flying from New York to Dallas near cruising altitude when the engine failed. The pilots descended quickly and landed in Philadelphia just before 11:30am Eastern. By all accounts, they did a textbook job of getting the aircraft on to the ground safely, though I’m sure that will be scrutinized carefully in the investigation, like every other detail.
It looks like Southwest’s first official tweet about the accident was at 12:39pm (all times Eastern from here on out).
Update on Flight #1380: pic.twitter.com/JhwVlUBeia
— Southwest Airlines (@SouthwestAir) April 17, 2018
An initial press release was put out confirming that something had happened. Southwest continued to operate Twitter as normal by responding to customers as quickly as possible, but no proactive tweets went out except for those related to the accident.
As we’ve seen other airlines do in other parts of the world, the airline then scrubbed its public presence to make sure it appeared focused on the accident and not on selling tickets. The logo on Twitter was changed from the usual multi-color heart to a gray one. And the background was just a flat blue.
On the airline’s website, it took off any sale advertising and left a generic blank spot with the logo in the middle. (That was eventually shrunk down in size and a link to information about the flight was posted.)
Another press release was put out around 4:30pm with more detail, including the fact that one person had died. The press release linked to a video of CEO Gary Kelly talking about the accident.
I thought the video was well done. I know he’s just reading a script, but Gary still seemed somewhat shaken. Leaders are at their best when they don’t try to hide emotions in times like these. That somber tone carried through to the media briefing Southwest held at 6pm. (Ok it was more like 6:15pm by the time it got started, but that’s excusable. There’s a lot going on.)
The name of the passenger who died soon became public. Jennifer Riordan was from Albuquerque. She was married with kids. This made the story much more human. Southwest didn’t flinch, however, and stayed on message that its focus was on helping the family and not on anything else. By the end of the day, when people were talking about Southwest, they were talking about the actions of the pilots and not about any potential culpability of the company. But that will inevitably change over time as the unfortunate race to assign blame begins.
National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Chairman Robert Sumwalt said yesterday that in the preliminary investigation, they had found that one of the fan blades in the engine had broken away. And in this “preliminary examination,” they saw that there was “evidence of metal fatigue where the blade separated.”
We don’t know more than that, but that is the kind of news that makes everyone nervous. Certainly there will be questions about whether Southwest properly inspected the engines on this airplane. The engine manufacturer, CFM (a joint venture between GE in the US and Safran in France), will come under scrutiny as well. This is one of the most popular engines in the world, and it has had a handful of issues that may be similar to this one. In fact, there was an airworthiness directive issued the last time this happened (also on a Southwest aircraft). Undoubtedly the FAA will be under the microscope. Looking closely at every party involved is what makes for a good investigation.
Right now, we don’t know why this happened, but the NTSB will figure this out. And there will be inspections and changes to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Ultimately, there will be learnings that make flying even safer than it already is. That’s the best thing that can happen in any accident and it’s what really matters, not the blame game.
As Southwest CEO Gary Kelly kept repeating over and over, this was a sad day. Southwest communicated well throughout the early hours of the crisis, but it will be tested further as this investigation unfolds.