Southwest Airlines continues to battle turbulence in the less-than friendly skies. In the wake of Flight 1380’s dramatic emergency landing on April 17th, one passenger has filed a lawsuit against the airline. Lilia Chavez, a California resident, claims that the incident has left her with post-traumatic stress disorder, extreme anxiety, and depression. She also claims she is still recovering from injuries sustained after one of the 737’s engines failed in mid-air.
The lawsuit is aimed at Southwest Airlines and the engine’s manufacturer. For Southwest, the lawsuit claims the airline was operating its aircraft knowing that there was a potential problem. It is a powerful accusation to level at one of the safest airlines in the US.
It is also an accusation the aviation industry is taking very seriously, in no small part due to how common the 737 is. Southwest Airlines alone operates over 1200 737’s across two major variants. All use engine models similar to Flight 1380’s failed engine. The company has promised an aggressive series of inspections across its whole fleet to prevent further incidents.
But the bad news for Southwest does not seem ready to let up. On May 2nd Southwest Airlines Flight 957, flying from Chicago to Newark, made an emergency landing in Cleveland. One of the layers of a passenger window cracked open mid-flight, prompting the pilots to land the aircraft for safety reasons. The cause is not yet known.
Are Flight 1380 and Flight 957 a sign of more trouble at Southwest Airlines?
The timing of the two incidents, both occurring on aircraft operated by the same airline, could suggest issues with maintenance. The lawsuit filed by Lilia Chavez may have just received additional support for her claims. The NTSB and FAA, already placing Southwest under a microscope, have been given further cause to dig deeper into the company’s maintenance practices.
It is a particularly bad look for airlines overall in 2018. These two high-profile flight diversions fly in the face of 2017, which has been described as the safest year in air travel yet. Even within the industry, critical voices assumed it would be impossible for airlines to prevent deaths, even with comprehensive effort. But in 2017, this was the case.
However, as dramatic has Flight 1380’s engine explosion was, and as frightening the implications of cracked passenger windows on Flight 957 can be, it simply is too early to assume that Southwest Airlines is having trouble in its aircraft hangars. And they aren’t even the only airline to have seen a flight make an emergency landing in the last three weeks.
A difficult three weeks for airlines, but does it indicate a trend?
United Airlines Flight 1559, bound for Florida from New Jersey, was forced to make an emergency landing on April 16th—a day before the fatal Southwest Flight 1380. Pilots aboard the 737 reported problems with the aircraft’s elevators. This could have developed into a far more serious loss of control. The pilots diverted to Dover Air Force Base, where passengers waited hours before transferring to a new plane.
A day after Flight 1380, Delta Airlines Flight 30, bound for London, was forced to make an emergency landing at the Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. Shortly after take-off, pilots radioed that they were experiencing engine problems. Firefighting units quickly responded to the aircraft as it landed, dousing the smoking engine shortly after touchdown.
An Air Canada flight was forced to return to Halifax Stanfield International Airport on April 29th. The aircraft, a Beech 1900D, made the emergency landing after smoke was noticed coming from the cockpit.
As these incidents demonstrate, problems with airliners are not limited to a single company, a type of aircraft, or engine.
The passenger aviation industry is often hailed as a gold standard in aircraft safety. It is a reputation all airlines fight to maintain by necessity. An accident caused by external forces can simply be an accident, as tragic as it would be. Conversely, an accident caused by neglectful maintenance practices could put smaller airlines out of business from the ensuing lawsuit.
For now, Southwest Airlines, much like other passenger carriers, will continue to operate from day to day. In 2017 alone, 4 billion passengers traveled the skies safely. It’s expected that more passengers will fly in 2018. Airlines will continue their efforts to understand and prevent another Flight 1380 or Flight 957, especially with the increased attention being placed upon them.