Despite Crash, Boeing 737 Has a Solid Safety Record

Fatal Accident Rate for 737s Compares Favorably to Most Aircraft

A Southwest Boeing 737

By Paul Riegler on 17 April 2018
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The explosion of an engine in midair that shattered a window that then partially sucked a woman outside of a Southwest Boeing 737 aircraft on Tuesday involved an airplane with an estimable safety record.

It was the first passenger fatality resulting from an accident on a U.S. airline in nine years and the first in Southwest’s history.

Somewhat surprisingly, it happened to an aircraft that is the mainstay of short-haul flights for dozens of airlines across the globe.

Southwest Flight 1380, while en route from New York City’s LaGuardia Airport to Dallas, suffered a serious engine blowout roughly 20 minutes after takeoff while the aircraft was at 32,500 feet. This forced an emergency landing at the closest airport, which was Philadelphia International.

The force of the explosion was strong enough to cause shrapnel to penetrate the fuselage and break a window, thereby causing cabin depressurization.

The Boeing 737 is the most successful commercial aircraft of all time.  The first one entered service in February 1964 with launch customer Lufthansa and last month, the 10,000th 737 left Boeing’s Everett factory.  Its closest competitor is the Airbus A320 family, which includes the A318, A319, and A321 that first entered service in 1988 with launch customer Air France. Since then, over 8,000 have been delivered to customers worldwide.

The accident came as a shock although it closely resembled a 2016 incident where another Southwest 737 blew an engine as it flew from New Orleans to Orlando that forced an emergency landing although there were no fatalities. The National Transportation Safety Board found that a fan blade had broken off, apparently due to metal fatigue.

Boeing said in a statement that it “extends its deepest condolences to the family of the passenger who passed away as a result of today’s incident,” adding that “our thoughts are with all of the passengers and crew who were on board the flight and with the entire Southwest Airlines family.”

Southwest Airlines Chief Executive Gary Kelly spoke of “a very somber day” in a conference call on Tuesday to discuss the incident.

THE 737’S EARLY DAYS

While sales of the 737 started off rather slowly, in part due to the aircraft’s small size (their capacity was about 100 passengers), its fortunes improved in the early 1980s with the introduction of what is now known as the Classic 737s, and the Next Generation 737s carry almost twice the number of passengers and can fly twice as far as the original models.

The fatal accident rate for early Boeing 737s such as the 100 and 200 models was 0.89 for every million departures.  That number fell to 0.25 for the so-called Classic versions – namely the 300, 400, and 500 – and fell again to 0.09 for the Next Generations such as the 600, 700, 800, and 900.

These rates compare rather favorably with other aircraft. The Airbus A310, for example, had a fatal accident rate of 1.85 per million departures. The Boeing 777, which is a contemporary of the Next Generation 737s, has a fatal accident rate of 0.2.

With minor exceptions, only brand new aircraft such as the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, the Airbus A350, and the Bombardier C-Series have a fatal accident rate of 0 and the 737 Next Generation’s rate of 0.09 is only bested by the Embraer 170/175/190 series with a rating of 0.07, before accounting for the new aircraft.

FIRST FATAL ACCIDENT

The first fatal incident involving a Boeing 737 took place on December 8, 1972 when United Airlines Flight 553 crashed while attempting to land at Chicago Midway Airport. Two people on the ground and 43 of the 61 passengers and crew on board were killed.

Prior to Tuesday, the most recent incident involving a 737 and fatalities was the March 19, 2016 crash of Flydubai Flight 981, a 737-800 en route from Dubai to Rostov-on-Don, Russia, which crashed on final approach to Rostov-on-Don Airport in bad weather, killing 62 passengers and crew members.

Meanwhile, an NTSB investigation team flew to Philadelphia Tuesday afternoon to conduct an on-site inspection of the aircraft and the damaged engine will be sent to an NTSB facility for a detailed examination.

While the plane involved in Tuesday’s incident began flying in July 2000, its engines had undergone regularly scheduled maintenance.  Following the incident in 2016, the engine manufacturer, CFM, issued a service bulletin to its customers recommending an ultrasonic inspection of certain fan blades and, if they were to fail the inspection, the replacement of those parts.  It isn’t clear whether this specific 737 was inspected as the Federal Aviation Administration never finalized an Airworthiness Directive that would have made the inspection mandatory.

“The 737 is the workhorse of the airline industry,” Southwest’s Kelly said during the news conference, pointing out that the airline was an all-737 operator.

Jonathan Spira contributed reporting to this story.

(Photo: Accura Media Group)

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