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EXPLAINER: Why A Plane’s Engine Exploded Over Denver

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The investigation into an engine explosion on a jetliner taking off from Denver is focusing on broken fan blades, a development reminiscent of a fatal failure on board another plane in 2018.

These and other recent engine failures raise questions over long-held assumptions about how long fan blades last and whether they are being inspected often enough.

A Boeing 777 operated by United Airlines had to make an emergency landing in Denver after one of its engines blew apart, spewing huge chunks of wreckage that landed in suburban neighborhoods. Passengers captured video of the crippled engine, wobbling and still on fire, as pilots made a safe return to the airport minutes after the plane bound for Hawaii took off.

WHAT HAPPENED?

U.S. officials said late Sunday that two fan blades in the Pratt & Whitney engine broke off. Experts said it is likely that one blade snapped first and chopped off the second. Federal Aviation Administration head Stephen Dickson said inspectors quickly concluded that inspections should be done more frequently for the type of hollow fan blades in certain Pratt & Whitney engines that are used on some Boeing 777s.

As a result, 69 planes and another 59 in storage were grounded in the U.S., Japan and South Korea, the only countries with planes using this particular engine. United, the only U.S. carrier with affected planes, said it grounded 24 Boeing 777s and 28 others will remain parked. Japanese regulators ordered Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways to ground 32 planes, and South Koreas Korean Air and Asiana Airlines said Monday they will ground their Boeing 777s.

WHAT ARE INVESTIGATORS LOOKING INTO?

Safety experts said the investigation will focus on why the fan blades snapped whether mistakes were made in manufacturing or maintenance, or problems were missed during inspections and whether blade inspections need to be done differently or more often. They will compare Saturday’s incident with similar ones in December in Japan and in 2018 on another United flight to Hawaii.

Investigators will also look at why the cowling, which covers the front of the engine, broke off along with other parts. Photos purported to show a large gash to the lower side of the plane.

That was a substantial hit, said John Goglia, a former member of the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating Saturdays incident. If that had hit the wing, things might have been different because the wing is full of fuel and the broken engine was still on fire.

Another concern: The engine remained on fire even after pilots presumably shut off its fuel supply. That could indicate a fuel leak, said Todd Curtis, a former Boeing engineer and now a safety consultant.

HOW MUCH DANGER WERE PASSENGERS IN?

Saturday’s incident is called an uncontained failure because debris blew off the disintegrating engine, creating shrapnel that can damage key systems like hydraulic lines or hit the passenger cabin.

The last accident-related death on a U.S. airline flight occurred in 2018, when a broken fan blade triggered an engine breakup on a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737. Part of the engine housing struck and broke a window. The passenger in the window seat was blown halfway outside and died of her injuries. That engine was made by a different company, CFM International, a joint venture of General Electric and Frances Safran S.A.

On Saturday, none of the 231 passengers or 10 crew members were hurt.

HAVE THERE BEEN SIMILAR INCIDENTS?

Hours before the Denver flight, a Boeing 747 cargo plane in the Netherlands suffered an engine failure that resulted in engine parts falling to the ground. Although the plane has Pratt & Whitney engines, they are different from those on some Boeing 777s, and nothing yet shows any similarity to the problem on the United plane, said Janet Northcote, a spokeswoman for the European Aviation Safety Agency.

Other mishaps appear to be closely related to the Denver incident, however.

In December, a Japan Airlines Boeing 777 with the same series Pratt & Whitney engines suffered fan blade damage and lost a large panel but was able to land safely.

In 2018, another United Airlines Boeing 777 suffered an engine failure that caused parts of the housing to break off and fall into the Pacific Ocean as the plane flew from San Francisco to Honolulu. In a report last year on the incident, the NTSB said Pratt & Whitney missed signs of cracking in previous inspections of the fan blade that broke, and it faulted the company’s training. The company told the NTSB it was fixing the shortcomings.

WILL THIS HURT BOEING?

Cai von Rumohr, an aviation analyst with Cowen, said events around Saturdays flight will be a bigger issue for Pratt & Whitneys parent company, Raytheon, than for Boeing. Still, he said, its probably not a major negative for Raytheon because it affects a relatively small number of planes and the engines have been used for many years.

Other experts said Boeing could be in the spotlight too as investigators look into why the cowling separated from the engine. That cowling is a Boeing design, it’s not the engine manufacturer’s design, said Jeff Guzzetti, former director of the FAA’s accident investigation division.

Boeing’s reputation has been battered since 2018 by two deadly crashes of another plane, the 737 Max.

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David Koenig can be reached at twitter.com/airlinewriter

Disclaimer: This post has been auto-published from an agency feed without any modifications to the text and has not been reviewed by an editor



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Airline CEOs, Biden Officials Consider Green-Fuel Breaks

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Chief executives of the nation’s largest passenger and cargo airlines met with key Biden administration officials Friday to talk about reducing emissions from airplanes and push incentives for lower-carbon aviation fuels.

The White House said the meeting with climate adviser Gina McCarthy and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg also touched on economic policy and curbing the spread of COVID-19 travel has been a vector for the virus. But industry officials said emissions dominated the discussion.

United Airlines said CEO Scott Kirby asked administration officials to support incentives for sustainable aviation fuel and technology to remove carbon from the atmosphere. In December, United said it invested an undisclosed amount in a carbon-capture company partly owned by Occidental Petroleum.

A United Nations aviation group has concluded that biofuels will remain a tiny source of aviation fuel for several years. Some environmentalists would prefer the Biden administration to impose tougher emissions standards on aircraft rather than create breaks for biofuels.

Biofuels are false solutions that dont decarbonize air travel, said Clare Lakewood, a climate-law official with the Center for Biological Diversity. Real action on aircraft emissions requires phasing out dirty, aging aircraft, maximizing operational efficiencies and funding the rapid development of electrification.

Airplanes account for a small portion of emissions that cause climate change about 2% to 3% but their share has been growing rapidly and is expected to roughly triple by mid-century with the global growth in travel.

The airline trade group says U.S. carriers have more than doubled the fuel efficiency of their fleets since 1978 and plan further reductions in carbon emissions. But the independent International Council on Clean Transportation says passenger traffic is growing nearly four times faster than fuel efficiency, leading to a 33% increase in emissions between 2013 and 2019.

The U.S. accounts for about 23% of aircraft carbon-dioxide emissions, followed by Europe at 19% and China at 13%, the transportation group’s researchers estimated.

The White House said McCarthy, Buttigieg and economic adviser Brian Deese were grateful and optimistic to hear the airline CEOs talk about current and future efforts to combat climate change.

Nicholas Calio, president of the trade group Airlines for America, said the exchange was positive.

Airlines are ready, willing and able partners, and we want to be part of the solution” to climate change, Calio said in a statement. We stand ready to work in partnership with the Biden administration.

Disclaimer: This post has been auto-published from an agency feed without any modifications to the text and has not been reviewed by an editor



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