WSJ Crisis of the Week: Fatal Flight Creates Turbulence at Southwest Airlines

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By Ben DiPietro

A woman died aboard Southwest Airlines Co. Flight 1380 on April 17 after an engine broke apart while the aircraft was more than 30,000 feet in the air, forcing the jet to make an emergency landing. It was the first U.S. airline accident fatality since 2009.

Investigators are trying to figure out what made the CFM56-7B engine break apart. U.S. and European aviation regulators concurrently imposed emergency inspection requirements for the type of engine that broke apart. The engine’s manufacturer released its own updated inspection guidance.

Southwest issued four statements on the day of the incident. The first announced the plane was being diverted; the second acknowledged an accident occurred and a passenger died. “The entire Southwest Airlines family is devastated and extends its deepest, heartfelt sympathy to the customers, employees, family members and loved ones affected by this tragic incident,” said the airline.

The third statement said the company was speeding up inspections of CFM56 engines; the fourth was a statement from the aircraft’s captain and first officer. Southwest followed with statements on engine inspections and how inspections impacted flights, including a video from Chief Executive Gary Kelly. Mr. Kelly wrote to passengers on the flight, offering a $5,000 check and a $1,000 travel voucher as “a tangible gesture of our heartfelt sincerity,” WSJ reported.

Three crisis-management professionals review Southwest’s public statements and communications.

Tadd Schwartz, president and chief executive, Schwartz Media Strategies“Southwest Airlines did many things right in the minutes, hours and days following the tragedy that struck Flight 1380. The company’s public response was prompt, its executives were visible and their outreach to passengers was compassionate and substantive. In the end, consumer confidence reigns supreme and Southwest could have done more to calm concerns about the safety of its planes, evidenced by reports of lost bookings in the weeks following the incident.

“Announcing an accelerated engine inspection schedule was a reasonable first step in the days following the mid-air explosion, but it didn’t go far enough. Southwest should have declared that every one of its aircraft would be temporarily taken out of service for a top-to-bottom safety check extending far beyond engines, even if it meant incurring more operational headaches over a longer period. Undertaking a comprehensive inch-by-inch inspection of its fleet would have alleviated lingering safety concerns and might have helped to mitigate the airline’s onslaught of cancelled bookings.”

Read the full story here.