Southwest Airlines Maintenance Error Caused Engine Cowl To Detach, Emergency Landing In Denver

After Sunday morning’s incident where an engine cowling detached off of a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737-800 shortly after takeoff from Denver, the airline now knows what happened. Someone screwed up.

Passenger video shows the engine cover peeling away and impacting the aircraft’s wing flap. The plane returned to Denver around 25 minutes after takeoff and was towed to the gate. Southwest initially referred to it as a “mechanical issue.” In fact the plane had undergone maintenance the night before – and someone forgot to latch the engine cowl properly.

Southwest Airlines has now sent out a memo reminding employees not to “forget our vigilance and attention to detail” and to “avoid complacency.”

Aviation watchdog JonNYC notes that the issue was a big ‘oopsie’ on the part of Southwest Airlines maintenance, followed by failures of others to notice the issue – and contrasts this with a procedure at American Airlines where these latches are painted fluorescent orange in order to “make them more visible when left unsecured.”

The event last Sunday was widely reported because it happened on a Boeing 737 when the issue was neither Boeing nor specific model-related, but rather human error at the airline. Painting engine cowl latches orange is a low-tech solution along the lines of ‘turning a computer off and on’ but one that Southwest might want to consider.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Painting engine cowl latches orange is a good idea .

    Meanwhile , remember that skilled labor isn’t cheap , and cheap labor isn’t skilled .

    I doubt that painting the latches orange would help Brandon’s army of migrants .

  2. Seems like the AA fix should be something done at the factory by default. This is the type of incident that can happen to any airline and is also very avoidable.

  3. I’m waiting for the trillion dollar lawsuit about this. It could have been at least as dangerous as losing a door plug if the parts had hit the control surfaces and damaged them. Of course inflation makes amounts asked for to go up. How did the pilots miss the cowling not being latched? I thought that they were supposed to do a walk around of the airplane before flying. Although they cannot visually inspect the interior of the engines and do not have expertise for that, they should be informed of any work on the airplane since it was last flown so they can key on the exterior view of that area.

  4. @Alert is correct. Painting the latches would not help migrants at all because they don’t do aircraft engine maintenance. I’m sure migrants are coming after Alert’s ditch digging job though, so I understand the bitterness and desperate politicizing.

  5. @jns … +1 . Well said . The company’s lawyers will NEVER allow the actual mechanic to testify or to give a deposition .

  6. the minute this occurred it was obviously a WN error.

    The severity of the situation is that WN simply has so few new planes coming in that they cannot afford to have any airplanes grounded for any reason (no airline does in reality but at least other airlines are not being impacted as much by Boeing’s incompetence).

    WN got the memo from Boeing that every other MAX customer will be getting which it that Boeing will deliver even fewer aircraft in 2024 than it previously told them – which was already reduced.

    WN, for the first time in its life, IIRC, will be a smaller airline at the end of 2024 than it was at the end of 2023.

    The implications of Boeing’s screwups which impact every model it is building are and will be very significant for airlines that thought they could depend on a company as its only if not majority supplier.

    I suspect that AS wishes it never got rid of those A321NEOs and UA figured out how to order Airbus aircraft sooner instead of making excuses for why it couldn’t order the Airbus aircraft while American and Delta could.

    painting latches orange might help but WN has to fix what it can and figure out how to extricate itself from the mess that Boeing has made not just for WN but for many of the world’s airlines that depended on Boeing.

  7. @alert, you will go far if you can earn your GED..

    Or you could skip that and run for Congress

  8. @Gary … Engine cowling latches were obvious to maintenance at the former TWA and PanAm . Perhaps the maintenance manuals ought to be colour comic books , and the orange colour for the latches could be shown on a larger scale ?

  9. Well, TBH, I think this is more of a safety check procedure issue, not just with Southwest but also the recent issues associated with UA, AA and AS. Safety procedures placed second over On-Time-Performance and this kind of things happen. I also haven’t seen articles referencing about OTP vs Safety during those recent incidents within the past month.

  10. One wonders how stretched the FAA will get auditing Boeing, United, and now, potentially Southwest. Certainly, there is bound to be some effects coming from the FAA towards Southwest, perhaps not as severe as at United.

  11. I’m not touching the political stuff that has no place here, no matter how stupid.

    The maintenance crew screwed up. That’s the first hole in the aligned Swiss cheese.
    The flight deck crew screwed up. They did the walkaround and they declared the A/C airworthy. It was not – as per ICAO Annex 8 it was not in a safe configuration.

    The point of a preflight inspection isn’t to show passengers you’re capable of walking 250ft, but rather that you can visually inspect those things that you CAN visually inspect to ensure they are all good. Aerofoils (wing and flap surfaces), latches, etc. are the bare minimum. The rest is what the flight deck crew assume the maintenance crew handled… and they have trust in their teams.

    If the latches are not visible, or hard to see, it’s up to those doing that preflight inspection to ensure they’re as visible as possible. Orange paint, whatever. Nobody will put electronic sensors on tension latches, but visual inspection is what’s currently one.

    Nobody got hurt here, but the potential had that cowling hit a critical flight surface was there. This clearly isn’t limited to WN or even AA or even Boeing. If the “guys” doing the preflight can’t inspect… that’s the problem.

  12. @Alert — way to take an entirely private corporation’s failure and try to twist it to express your personal, vindictive political viewpoint.

  13. This is a known “challenge” since the B737s engines when oval with the dash 300 model. The latches simply cannot be seen without getting down on your hands and knees.

    Nothing new here …

  14. At Mc Donnell Douglas they had a technical term;
    “IDIOT PROOF!” On military fan cowls the sides of the latches are painted bright orange. One would think the same standard would applied to civilian aircraft.

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