Southwest’s Post-Accident Response Starts the Right Way, But The Road is Long

Accidents/Incidents, Southwest

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).

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.

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19 comments on “Southwest’s Post-Accident Response Starts the Right Way, But The Road is Long

  1. This is tragic and horrifying – but what a phenomenal response from the flight crew in landing safely, and from those passengers who tried to keep poor Mrs Riordan alive; totally humbled by such composure in the face of terrifying adversity.

  2. Let’s recognize how remarkable it is that there hasn’t been an airline crash in the US for NINE YEARS, and that there hasn’t been a mainline airline crash in the US for… Well, I couldn’t really find a quick answer to this on Google, but at least nine years.

    That’s absolutely incredible, given the number of flights and pax carried, and really speaks to the maturation of a lot of the products, processes, and systems in commercial aviation over the past hundred years.

    1. I believe the last crash of a mainline US aircraft that resulted in lost lives was way back in late 2001 – AA587 that crashed in Queens. There was the crash in Lexington and then the Buffalo one, both on regionals. Few years back there was the Asiana incident at SFO but that wasn’t a US airline. Really remarkable that while there have been “incidents” there have been virtually no fatalities in US commercial aviation for so long.

  3. I’m not part of the airline industry, but it gives me great confidence in the way it investigates accidents – groups like the NTSB will not rest until they are almost 100% sure they know why this particular aircraft crashed, and how we can prevent it in the future. As a relatively frequent passenger, I feel I can trust the manufacturers/airlines because they are held to such scrutiny.

    1. I appreciate the sentiment, but this was an accident, not a crash. There hasn’t been a US mainline crash resulting in a fatality since 2001, and this unprecedented record continues.

  4. Are we headed towards FAA mandated full-time seatbelts when seated, not just the suggestion that everyone keep theirs on even when the seatbelt sign is off? Seems absurd that we have to take any precautions to avoid getting sucked out a window but it is certainly a very small concession of comfort to make.

    1. Has it been confirmed that the passenger wasn’t seat-belted? Or that she wasn’t perhaps just getting up? Let’s leave the assignment of blame to those who investigate the incident.

      1. The NTSB will figure that out. A plane going full speed at 30,000′ is going to have a huge pressure differential between the cabin and the surrounding environment. Once that window was broken, that entire differential was going to try to equilibrate itself through that one window. The force that woman must have felt is unimaginable.

        1. The BAR differential at 32k feet plus the airspeed of the aircraft meant that a seatbelt would be almost completely meaningless. That force will suck you out of your shoes, clothes, and right through a tiny opening. Worrying about whether the seatbelt will keep you from getting sucked out the window is completely nuts.

          1. Well, in fairness, they probably kept the pax on the Aloha plane from getting blown out when it lost that larger hunk of fuselage.

            1. Yes, that’s true. But I will point out that the Aloha incident occurred at 24.000 feet. Still explosive decompression, but decompression 32,000 is even stronger. Also, when dealing with a hole in the fuselage, the Venturi effect occurs (basically ALL of the air squeezing through a small breach) which adds to the force. Which is why this poor woman was sucked out and the seatbelt couldn’t stop it, yet those pax on the Aloha flight were saved by theirs. Apples and oranges,

  5. Condolences to the family of the passenger who past away.
    Major kudos to the pilot and crew for being amazing.
    And finally, I’d like to borrow some of that incredible luck that Allegiant Airlines is feeling right now to be instantly removed from the news cycle after the 60 min report.

  6. 737s are designed to fly on one engine-just not as fast-and pilots practice with one engine. The containment band should have kept the partial blade within the nacelle.

  7. The reason why this accident is garnering so much attention is because of the very gruesome way the sole passenger death occurred. Wearing a seatbelt (which the NTSB confirmed did happen) doesn’t do much good when the window is blown out right next to a passenger’s head.
    WN has a lot of goodwill built up and handles crises fairly well but news agencies are already picking up that WN, along with other airlines, asked for extra time to do the fan blade inspections which the FAA said take 2 hours and less than $200 of labor cost to accomplish. WN says that it doesn’t track the placement of individual fan blades so the ones that might have been defective are now spread across their fleet – meaning inspections will take a long time.
    While it took little time to see the similarity between the WN engine failure in Aug 2016 and this one, many people wonder why it has taken so long for the government to figure out what parts needed further inspection from that accident and order it be done. Given that several airlines were challenging the inspection timelines, the public will gain some justifiable skepticism in the process given that the latest accident might have been prevented if inspections were done on a more aggressive basis.
    Accidents are always sad but this was a particularly brutal death in an era in which social media records every detail and public access to the regulatory process is only increasing.

    1. Well if the FAA or NTSB (whoever is responsible in requiring these inspections) were to ground all airplanes by every airline affected, until the plane has been certified to fly. I bet all the airlines would speed up the inspections, including paying their people overtime to complete them as quickly as possible, to avoid as many cancellations that will occur. There is no answer to having a unsafe plane out there when a death can occur due to something that that can be prevented. It is the Cost of Doing Business in this industry.

  8. On average 100 people in US die in car crashes EVERY DAY. One Hundred.
    But that’s not the News.
    ONE person dies in Airline incident in 10 years – that the news.
    Just the indicator that news even remotely do not represent real situation. They just interested in freak accidents.

    1. Alex,
      the WN accident was indeed a freak accident which does indeed draw attention.

      But airlines have developed a culture of safety so exceptions do get a lot of attention. Airlines train their people very well and have very robust processes which is not necessarily the case with the average American driver.
      The expectation is that airline travel should be safe and it is to a very great extent which is why failures like what happened with WN gain lots of attention. And since it is becoming more and more likely that the accident might have been prevented if fan blade investigations would have started earlier and on a much more aggressive schedule, there is indeed reason for scrutiny.

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