Burnt Coffee Prompts Southwest Boeing 737 Emergency Landing

Do you love your coffee? We do. But even a lack of caffeine wouldn’t stop us from taking a trip to Punta Cana. However, this is exactly what happened on a Southwest Airlines flight yesterday, when burned coffee caused the plane to make an emergency landing at Norfolk in Virginia.

Southwest airlines
Burnt coffee caused this Southwest flight to make an emergency landing. Photo: BriYYZ via Wikimedia

So, what happened?

Southwest flight WN-811 was traveling from Baltimore to Punta Cana on November 6th. According to Flight Radar 24, the aircraft took off from Baltimore at 08:51, just 11 minutes past its scheduled departure time of 08:40. With a scheduled time of arrival of 13:45, passengers were undoubtedly settling in for a relatively long flight.

The flight was being operated by a Boeing 737-700, registration N738CB. According to Planespotters it’s a 20 year old granddaddy of a 737, which has been with Southwest since it was built in 1999. Comfortably seated on board were just 90 passengers along with five crew members.

N738CB, the incident aircraft. Photo: Eddie Maloney via Wikimedia

However, less than an hour into the flight, crew became aware of a serious problem on board. The cabin was starting to fill with smoke, and an acrid smell was penetrating the cabin. Clearly worried about the situation, the flight crew diverted to the nearest airport, which happened to be Norfolk in Virginia.

The aircraft landed safely less than an hour after takeoff. All passengers and crew deplaned safely.

The cause of the fire

Upon inspection of the aircraft, it turned out that the smoke was caused not by melting avionics or someone’s combustible Note 7. It was, in fact, a rogue coffee pot that had caused all the kerfuffle.

The Aviation Herald reports that there was indeed a fire, albeit a small one, in the galley of the 737. The coffee pot was on fire, but by the time the firefighters arrived, it had put itself out. All they found was the sorry sight of a burned coffee pot and some really bitter coffee.

SWA coffee
The flight wasn’t long into its journey when it had to turn around. Photo: FlightAware

Southwest provided the following statement to Fox News regarding the incident:

“Yesterday, the Pilots of Southwest Airlines Flight 811 operating from Baltimore/Washington International Airport to Punta Cana International Airport diverted to Norfolk International Airport to allow crews on the ground to address a malfunctioning coffee pot.

“The aircraft landed safely at Norfolk. An initial review confirmed a coffee pot in the front galley will need to be replaced and the aircraft was out of service pending further review by our maintenance teams.”

According to the airline, the plane is fine. The crew are fine and the passengers are fine. However, the coffee pot needs to be replaced.

A more common problem than you might imagine

We’ve heard of some strange reasons for flights to be turned around, and not having access to coffee probably ranks up there with a good number of them. However, this is an issue that might be a bit more common than you’d think.

The Express reports that back in 2016, a Lufthansa flight traveling transatlantic declared a mid-air emergency, making a U-turn and leading to an 18-hour delay, due to a coffee pot being unable to be switched off.

No coffee, no joke, but more problematic than you might think. Photo: Pixabay

Earlier this year, in January, the NY Post told us about a Delta flight that had to make an emergency landing due to an overheating coffee pot. While there were no flames, there was an ‘onboard fire indication’ which caused the flight to divert.

Just yesterday, a poster on Airliners.net reports a 15-minute delay due to a malfunctioning coffee maker. The OP questioned whether a functional coffee machine is a MEL (minimum equipment list item), to which many posters responded that it surely is; after all, who functions well without caffeine?

However, the truth runs a tad bit deeper than simply pilots and cabin crew needing their espresso fix. CEO of American Airlines, Robert Issom, enlightened us on this situation in a podcast from 2016. In it, he details how coffee machine malfunctions were the root cause of many an AA delay, explaining that it’s not just the lack of coffee that causes a headache for airlines.

Aircraft Coffee machine
Coffee machines on planes can be dangerous. Photo: Safran

Coffee machines are expensive, costing between $7,000 and $20,000 to install on an aircraft. They’re also electrical, and get very hot. That means they are subject to all sorts of rules and regulations that come with having such a wild piece of equipment on board. When they go wrong, they require full inspection by ground crew to ensure there’s’ not a problem within the circuit that could cause a fire or other problem.

A happy ending for some

For the Southwest flight, it seems the malfunctioning coffee maker caused a much more serious issue than just depriving its passengers of their caffeine fix. Clearly the crew took the best action available and made sure everyone was safe and not sorry.

For the passengers, the situation was rapidly resolved, as Southwest dispatched a replacement 737 swiftly to come to their rescue. So quick was the remedial action, the replacement flight landed in Punta Cana just 105 minutes behind the original schedule.

A happy ending for the passengers; for the coffee pot, not so much.