Boeing Says It’s Fixing 737 NG Part NTSB Wants Redesigned

By Alan Levin | November 19, 2019

The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board recommended Tuesday that the Boeing Co. 737 NG be redesigned to prevent a repeat of a fatal accident last year in which an engine part broke off in flight, killing a passenger.

More than 7,000 so-called 737 Next Generation planes could be affected by the recommendation that the inlet to the engines be redesigned to contain parts that come loose in a failure.

The NTSB called on the Federal Aviation Administration to require the repair be installed on new 737 NG aircraft and that it be retrofitted onto the thousands of planes in service.

“These recommendations show the way toward greater safety even when a fan-blade-out event occurs,” NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said at the conclusion of the meeting.

Boeing said in an emailed statement it is introducing enhancements to the part of the engine that failed in order to improve its ability to withstand a broken fan blade.

“Boeing is committed to working closely with the FAA, engine manufacturers, and industry stakeholders to implement enhancements that address the NTSB’s safety recommendations,” the company said in the statement.

The FAA said it will review and respond to the NTSB recommendations.

Boeing and the FAA said a significant amount of the risk has been eliminated because of newer, more thorough inspections of the fan blades. Previous inspections missed cracks that could lead to failures. FAA, working with CFM, has issued several orders for inspections using different technology that works better to sense hidden cracks on the more than 350,000 fan blades on CFM56-7B engines.

However, blades can fail for several reasons, such as when planes hit birds, and the inspections can’t eliminate all the risk of such an event occurring.

The safety board issued the recommendation after a hearing Tuesday on the April 17, 2018, incident in which a woman was partially sucked out from the Southwest Airlines jet and had to be pulled back into the plane by fellow passengers.

A fan blade on an engine made by CFM International Inc. broke off, triggering the damage, the NTSB concluded.

Boeing slid as much as 2.1% after the NTSB’s comments, reversing gains from earlier in the session. The shares were down less than 1% to close at $367 in New York.

The NTSB stopped short of asking for changes on other aircraft and engine combinations, but asked the FAA to improve how the structure at the front of the engine — a curved surface that provides a smooth flow of air into the power plants — is designed in the future.

The NTSB also urged the European Aviation Safety Agency to adopt the suggested improvements. While FAA has no legal authority outside the U.S., other nations typically follow its lead.

The NG model is a predecessor to Boeing’s 737 Max that has been grounded since the second of two deadly crashes in March.

At least part of the reason that the engine failure caused so much damage is the unusual shape of the structure outside 737 NG engine. Instead of being circular, as is the case on most models, the NG is flattened on the bottom so the engine can fit on its relatively low wings. It was on that flat section that a hunk of metal broke loose and was flung into the side of the plane, where it struck the window, the NTSB said.

CFM, a joint venture between General Electric Co. and France’s Safran SA, said it developed the engine’s design in close collaboration with Boeing. “We will continue to strictly comply with regulatory requirements, including any changes that might be adopted as a result of NTSB’s recommendations,” the company said in an emailed statement.

CFM simulated broken fan blades during testing for the engine and didn’t encounter the type of damage that occurred in the 2018 accident, the NTSB said.

Engines are required to be encased in an armored sleeve to prevent debris in a failure from striking the plane, but the structure that hit the window on the Southwest plane was designed by Boeing and was in front of the protected area. Such failures weren’t anticipated during certification and testing, the NTSB said.

The incident on the 737-700 occurred shortly after 11 a.m. on April 17, 2018, above Pennsylvania on a flight from New York to Dallas. The fractured fan blade started a chain reaction that led a hunk of metal to fly off the jet engine, shatter a window on the plane and trigger an explosive decompression.

The air rushing out of the 737-700 at about 32,500 feet partially sucked a 43-year-old woman through the window, killing her in spite of other passengers’ attempts to pull her back.

The passenger fatality was the first in more than nine years in the U.S. and has raised significant issues about the safety of engines.

Similar failures have occurred at least twice since 2016. A similar cracked blade caused a Southwest 737-700 to make an emergency landing on Aug. 27, 2016, near Pensacola, Florida. That plane also lost pressure, but no one was hurt.

Debris also showered a United Continental Holdings Inc. flight from San Francisco to Honolulu on Feb. 13, 2018. The Boeing 777-200, equipped with engines made by by United Technologies Corp.’s Pratt & Whitney division, made an emergency landing. There also were no injuries in that episode.

The chaotic emergency descent also raised questions by the NTSB. Two of the flight attendants on the Southwest plane were forced to sit on the floor during the emergency landing, partly because they’d moved passengers on the full flight to their jump seats.

The flight attendants should have been in their own seats in case an emergency evacuation or fire occurred, the NTSB said. It also recommended that FAA and Southwest to use lessons from the incident to improve the emergency response.

Southwest Airlines Co., in a statement, said it plans to examine its training to identify ways it can improve safety.

“We look forward to reviewing the recommendations of the NTSB and continuing our work with the manufacturers to prevent this type of event from ever happening again,” the company said.

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