American Airlines Subsidiary Fined Over $15,000 After Mother of 3 Fatally ‘Ingested’ Into Plane Engine

Wim De Gent
By Wim De Gent
June 20, 2023News
American Airlines Subsidiary Fined Over $15,000 After Mother of 3 Fatally ‘Ingested’ Into Plane Engine
American Airlines planes in a file photo. (Daniel Slim/AFP via Getty Images)

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) fined Piedmont Airlines $15,625 after a ground crew member was fatally “ingested” by an airplane engine at Montgomery Regional Airport, Alabama, on Dec. 31, 2022.

The OSHA deemed Piedmont Airlines, a subsidiary of American Airlines, to be at fault in the death of Courtney Edwards, a 34-year-old mother of three who was employed as a ground agent for the airline—although an earlier investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) had appeared favorable for the company.

In its ruling, the OSHA declared the fatal accident a general issue violation. “The employer did not furnish employment and a place of employment which were free from recognized hazards that were causing or were likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees that were exposed to ingestion and jet blast hazards,” the ruling read.

The $15,625 penalty is the maximum allowed by law for a serious violation of this kind.

However, the penalty was at odds with a preliminary report from the NTSB released in January (pdf), which did not find the airline to be at fault.

According to the NTSB report, a safety briefing was held 10 minutes before the plane arrived at the gate. The crew said a second “safety huddle” was held shortly before engaging the plane, where it was reiterated that the engines would continue running until an electrical connection was made to a power line on the ground. The report noted that the plane was operating with “an inoperative auxiliary power unit (APU).”

Once a power connection to the ground supply is made, the plane’s engines can be turned off, though they require up to a minute to spool down. When the plane’s engines have spooled down, the rotating beacon lights can be turned off. This is the signal to ground crew that they are cleared to place a diamond of safety cones around the airplane, after which the passengers are allowed to disembark.

However, video surveillance showed one ramp agent (presumably Edwards) walking towards the back of the airplane with an orange safety cone while the engines were still running. A colleague said he “observed her almost fall over from the engines exhaust” as he signaled her to stay back and wait for the engines to be shut down.

The surveillance camera subsequently captured footage of Edwards appearing from the back of the plane, walking along the edge of the plane’s left wing and directly in front of its engine. She was immediately pulled off her feet and into the operating engine, suffering fatal injuries.

The NTSB concluded with citations from the American Eagle Ground Operations Manual that clearly instructs ground crew to “never approach an aircraft to position ground equipment” until the engines are shut down and the rotating beacons are turned off.

The manual warns against the powerful pull of jet engines, the “ingestion zone” of which is 15 feet for all aircraft types: “You must never enter the ingestion zone until the engine has spooled down.”

“Safety is always our top priority for our team members,” Piedmont Airlines spokesperson Crystal Byrd told Dallas Morning News. “We appreciate the recommendations from OSHA and will ensure that a thorough review is accomplished.”

It is unclear what recommendations OSHA has given, but its inspection process is still ongoing.

“Despite the small penalty, it is likely Piedmont will contest the decision, and [Communication Workers of America union] will continue to fight for Courtney Edwards, her family, and the safety of all airline workers, who should never fear for their lives on the job,” a memo from the union to its members read.

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