The Southwest engine that exploded is one of the safest and most popular in the world, analyst says

  • A Southwest Airlines Flight 1380 made an emergency landing in Philadelphia on Tuesday after one of its CFM56-7B engines failed mid-flight.
  • It’s the second uncontained engine failure of this type experienced by a CFM56-powered Southwest aircraft since 2016.
  • Southwest is conducting an inspection of all of its more than 710 CFM56-powered Boeing 737s.
  • The CFM56 is the most popular jet engine in history and is also considered one of the safest by industry insiders.

On Tuesday, a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737-700 made an emergency landing in Philadelphia after suffering a catastrophic engine failure and cabin depressurization.

Sadly, the incident resulted in the death of passenger Jennifer Riordan.

According to the National Transportation Safety Board, investigators believe the left engine on Southwest Flight 1380 failed when one of its 24 titanium alloy fan blades snapped off mid-flight. The violent event caused the front cowling of the engine to disintegrate, firing shrapnel into the cabin of the aircraft.

The engine in question is a CFM56 turbofan. It’s the product of a 40-year-old joint venture between GE Aviation and France’s Safran Aircraft Engines called CFM International.

The CFM56 arguably the most popular jet engines in the world with more than 30,000 units produced since 1980 and is used on both civilian and military aircraft. The CFM56-7B debuted in 1997 and currently powers more than 6,700 planes in the world.

In August 2016, Southwest Flight 3472, another CFM56-powered Boeing 737, suffered an eerily similar failure. Fortunately, no one was injured in that incident.

Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly told the NTSB on Tuesday that the airline would inspect its entire fleet of more than 710 CFM56-powered Boeing 737s using ultrasonic technology. The ultrasonics are used to scan the engine’s fan blades for microscopic cracks that can be caused by metal fatigue.

The European Aviation Safety Agency issued a directive in March that required all CFM56 engines to undergo ultrasonic scanning,Reuters reported.

However, not all in the aviation business are concerned.

“I’m not even vaguely concerned,” veteran aviation industry analyst Richard Aboulafia said in an interview. “It’s the most popular engine in history in terms of order and deliveries.”

“If there were problems with the design there, it would have been discovered decades ago,” Aboulafia, who is vice president for analysis at Teal Group, said.

Aboulafia believes the issues experienced by airlines is an inspection and a maintenance issue and even then, the failure may be a “freak case” instead of a systemic issue.

The analyst also pointed Southwest, alone, operates more than 700 CFM56-powered aircraft that makes thousands of flights per day. And yet, only two of them have experienced serious failures such as the one on Tuesday.

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