Southwest: Other carriers finding cracked engine fan blades

DALLAS (AP) — A small number of fan blades with cracks like those blamed for a fatal accident on Southwest Airlines have been found at other airlines, and the engine maker is considering recommending more frequent inspections.

A spokesman for General Electric, one of two companies that owns the engine manufacturer, said Friday that “a handful” of problematic fan blades have been removed during stepped-up inspections that followed the Southwest accident in April.

Southwest’s chief operating officer, Mike Van de Ven, said he knows of “maybe four or five” reports of cracked fan blades at other carriers. Neither Van de Ven nor GE identified the airlines.

A spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board declined to comment on the statements by Southwest and GE.

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The blades are being analyzed as part of the NTSB’s investigation of the accident in which a woman died after being pushed partly out of a broken window as her plane cruised 32,000 feet above the ground. The safety board has scheduled a hearing on the accident for Nov. 14.

The NTSB said earlier this week that the hearing will examine fan blade design and inspections. The board will also look at measures to prevent broken parts from becoming deadly shrapnel, as happened on the Southwest flight.

That engine was made by CFM International, a joint venture of GE and France’s Safran SA. GE spokesman Rick Kennedy said about 150,000 blades were inspected after the Southwest accident. The inspections focused on blades from engines that had made a high number of flights and were considered at greater risk of metal fatigue — the formation of invisible cracks from wear.

Kennedy said that in the 21 years since the CFM56-7B engine went into service there have been only two incidents in which a fan blade broke.

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“We believe with the knowledge we have gained through our inspections over the past two years and the aggressive manner in which the blades are being tracked and inspected, we have a strong process for ensuring flight safety for the fleet,” he said.

Van de Ven said Thursday that GE told Southwest it is considering recommending that airlines inspect and lubricate fan blades every 1,600 to 1,800 flights instead of every 3,000 flights. CFM International suggested the 3,000-flight maintenance schedule after the accident. Van de Ven said Southwest checked 17,000 blades in 30 days and will recheck them every 1,600 flights.

Investigators believe that a broken fan blade triggered a catastrophic breakdup of one of the engines on a Southwest jet as it flew from New York to Dallas on April 17. Jennifer Riordan, a mother of two, was sitting next to a window that was shattered by engine debris. The bank executive from Albuquerque, New Mexico, died of blunt-force injuries. The pilots made a safe emergency landing in Philadelphia.