The U.S. government is worried that the pandemic could lead to jet engines suddenly failing

engine failure jet coronavirus
Photo via Marvin Mutz/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)

Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, the airline industry has suffered one blow after another. Now, some are worried about the possibility of a mid-flight jet engine failure.

The Federal Aviation Administration has reportedly issued an emergency order instructing Boeing 737 jet owners and operators to check their airplanes for defective engine valves that could cause potential engine failure. 

The directive comes after inspectors have filed four separate reports of single-engine shutdowns caused by faulty air check valves. According to the FAA memo, corrosion of a valve during airplane storage may cause the valve to be stuck in the open position during flight when it’s supposed to be closed and result in an “unrecoverable compressor stall.” If corrosion occurs in the valves of both engines, it could later lead to dual-engine power loss and an inability to restart the plane. If both engines suffer a malfunction, it could result in a “forced off-airport landing.”

The order affects about 2,000 twin-engine passenger jets, NPR noted. It requires all operators to inspect the valves on all of their 737 Classic and 737 New Generation (NG) planes that may have been parked and rendered out-of-commission for seven or more consecutive days. If corrosion has been found, valves must be replaced before the planes are deemed safe and air-worthy.

In response to the FAA emergency directive, Boeing spokesperson Peter Pedraza issued a statement advising operators of 737 Classic and 737 NG planes to inspect their engine valves for corrosion, out of an abundance of caution, USA Today reported. “With airplanes being stored or used infrequently due to lower demand during the COVID-19 pandemic, the valve can be more susceptible to corrosion. Boeing is providing inspection and replacement information to fleet owners if they find an issue,” the statement said.

Airlines respond to directive that would help avoid engine failure

Although the FAA did not provide specific details on the four incidents or name the airline operators whose planes have been deemed unfit for travel, Alaska Airlines confirmed that one of its planes experienced an “engine shutdown issue” during a flight from Seattle to Austin on July 15. According to USA Today, Alaska Airlines spokesperson Ray Lane said the “safety of the flight was not compromised” and that the 737 made an emergency landing in Austin and got an engine replacement. The Seattle-based carrier was also reportedly already in the process of inspecting six of its 737s when the FAA came out with its directive.

According to CNBC, multiple airlines have also responded to the directive issued by the FAA. American Airlines confirmed that four out of more than 300 Boeing 737 NG planes that it operates were inspected and cleared for operation. It does not expect any disruption to its services. United Airlines has also said that it is following the FAA order and does not expect any schedule interruptions.

Southwest Airlines said its fleet of Boeing 737s has not gone through any of the conditions described in the directive. “Currently, we do not anticipate any disruption to our operation as we work to review the aircraft in storage that are affected by the AD,” the airline said in a statement.

Delta Airlines, in a statement, promised to meet and exceed all directives issued by airline safety regulators. “We will ensure compliance with this directive as nothing is more important at Delta than the safety of our customers and people.”

The general consensus among federal institutions—namely the CDC and the U.S. Department of State—is still to avoid unnecessary air travel, as it is deemed high-risk due to unavoidable close contact with other passengers as well as high-touch surfaces. Travelers hoping to visit friends and family within the U.S. are encouraged to check local coronavirus numbers prior to flying to track how fast the virus is spreading at your destination and to cancel plans accordingly to avoid contracting or unwittingly spreading COVID-19.

Sources: Associated Press, FAA, NPR, USA Today, CNBC, CDC

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