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Southwest Boeing 737-800 flight loses engine cover, prompting regulator to investigate

An engine cover on a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737-800 fell off on Sunday during takeoff in Denver and struck the wing flap, prompting the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to open an investigation.

No one was injured and Southwest Flight 3695 returned safely to Denver International Airport around 8:15 a.m. MT (10:15 a.m. ET) on Sunday and was towed to the gate after losing the engine cowling.

The Boeing aircraft bound for Houston Hobby airport with 135 passengers and six crew members aboard climbed to about 3,140 metres before returning 25 minutes after takeoff.

Passengers arrived in Houston on another Southwest plane about four hours behind schedule. Southwest said maintenance teams are reviewing the aircraft.

The plane entered service in June 2015, according to FAA records. Boeing referred questions to Southwest.

The 737-800 is in the prior generation of the best-selling 737 known as the 737 NG, which in turn was replaced by the 737 MAX.

A spokesperson for Southwest Airlines told CBC News in a statement that the airline’s maintenance teams were reviewing the aircraft, adding that the carrier apologized to passengers who were inconvenienced by the resulting delay.

WATCH | The moment a cowling fell off a Southwest Boeing plane: 

Southwest passenger films loose cowling incident from inside Boeing plane

A Southwest Airlines passenger filmed an incident in which a loose engine cowling flew off a Boeing airplane on Sunday. Afterward, disembarked passengers shared how they and the plane crew reacted.

Incident an airline maintenance issue, experts say

There is heightened sensitivity around the Boeing brand right now as the company faces intense scrutiny, said Rick Erickson, the managing director of RP Erickson and Associates aviation consultants in Calgary. 

“I do believe some mistakes have been made. This company was founded and very principled around its safety engineering for many, many years,” Erickson said.

“I think over this last probably dozen or 15 years, there’s been a switch in terms of management focus. And I think there’s a bit more priority perhaps on shareholder value, on driving profits and the like.”

He said an incident in which a loose cowling isn’t snapped on properly isn’t an uncommon occurrence — it likely happens a few times a month worldwide — and that it doesn’t pose a major safety issue to passengers.

A closeup shows the nose of a plane with an Air Canada logo.
Aviation industry expert John Gradek says Boeing planes make up a majority portion of WestJet’s fleet and a sizeable proportion of Air Canada’s fleet as well. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

John Gradek, an aviation industry expert who co-ordinates the aviation management program at McGill University in Montreal, said of the Sunday incident: “It’s not a Boeing problem, it’s an airline maintenance problem.”

“Boeing has admitted that they’ve had problems with the production of the MAX airplanes and potentially with the 787 airplanes as well. And these aircraft are under the microscope by the FAA and by the [National Transportation Safety Board],” Gradek said.

But “if you want to avoid a Boeing airplane, it’s going to be very difficult, especially if you’re in Western Canada,” Gradek said, noting that Boeing planes make up a majority portion of WestJet’s fleet and a sizeable proportion of Air Canada’s fleet as well.

“The odds of getting on a Boeing if you’re flying with a Canadian carrier are very high.”

Boeing under intense criticism

ABC News aired a video posted on social media platform X of the ripped engine cover flapping in the wind with a torn Southwest logo.

Boeing has come under intense criticism since a door plug panel tore off a new Alaska Airlines 737 MAX 9 jet at 16,000 feet on Jan. 5.

In the aftermath of that incident, the FAA grounded the MAX 9 for several weeks, barred Boeing from increasing the MAX production rate and ordered it to develop a comprehensive plan to address “systemic quality-control issues” within 90 days.

Boeing production has fallen below the maximum 38 MAX planes per month the FAA is allowing. The Justice Department has opened a criminal investigation into the MAX 9 incident.

In December, the FAA proposed mandating engine housing inspections and component replacements on Boeing 737 NG airplanes after a 2018 Southwest fatal fan blade incident.

LISTEN | A crisis of confidence is shaking Boeing: 

The Current9:18Crisis of confidence at Boeing

Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun will step down later this year, after a string of incidents renewed concerns about the safety of the company’s planes. Washington Post reporter Lori Aratani walks us through the crisis of confidence shaking the manufacturer.

The directives would require operators to inspect and replace certain components on the engine cowling by July 2028. The National Transportation Safety Board called on Boeing in 2019 to redesign the fan cowling structure after the incident.

The FAA is investigating several other recent engine issues on Southwest’s fleet of Boeing planes.

A Southwest 737-800 flight on Thursday aborted takeoff and taxied back to the gate at Lubbock airport in Texas after the crew reported engine issues. The FAA is also investigating a March 25 Southwest 737 flight that returned to the Austin airport in Texas after the crew reported a possible engine issue.

A March 22 Southwest 737-800 flight returned to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., airport after the crew reported an engine issue. It is also being reviewed by the FAA.

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