Experts say the plane and engine used by United have a safe track record - and the scary landing in Colorado should have minimal impact on the airline
The United Airlines Boeing 777-222 that had an engine failure in flight. AaronP / Bauer-Griffin / GC images
A United Airlines jet landed on Saturday after an emergency engine failure.
Three aviation regulators have effectively grounded Boeing 777s with PW4000-112 engines pending investigation.
Experts say that given the track record of either aircraft or engine, the problem is likely not systemic.
Only 69 aircraft worldwide are affected and United is the only US carrier with this model.
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Regulators in the US, UK and Japan have effectively grounded Boeing 777 aircraft powered by Pratt & Whitney PW4000-112 engines pending an investigation into the United Airlines flight, which made an emergency landing shortly after takeoff over the weekend.
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Flight 328 from Denver, Colorado to Honolulu returned safely to the airport after an unincluded engine failure occurred shortly after takeoff. The incident resulted in debris falling to the ground in the Denver suburbs but not causing any death or injury to passengers or bystanders as the engine failure did not affect other critical aspects of the aircraft.
The grounding affects 69 aircraft currently flying for airlines such as United, All Nippon Airways and Japan Airlines, and is supported by Boeing, the aircraft manufacturer. The impact on United, the only U.S. airline affected by the grounding, should be minimal, experts told Insider.
"We're very happy that the fan blades didn't break the cabin, they didn't pierce the wing, they didn't puncture the fuel tank," said Henry Harteveldt, founder of the travel research company Atmosphere Research Group, in an interview. "In the event of an accident, this was as good as you can hope that there was no injury or death and the plane returned safely to the ground."
The incident reflected a similar problem with the same airline, aircraft and engine, according to data from the Aviation Safety Network, when a United flight from San Francisco to Honolulu in 2018 also had an engine problem and was able to land safely without injury or death . However, experts do not believe that there is a systemic problem with the engine or the aircraft itself, and note a track record of safety for both.
"This was the starting engine for the aircraft a quarter of a century ago," Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis at Teal Group, told Insider, since the Boeing 777 has been in commercial service since 1995. This particular engine and airframe combination, Aboulafia says. we would have already known.
For example, the Boeing 737 Max's first fatal crash occurred a little over a year after trading began. The Boeing 777, on the other hand, has been in use for over 25 years without any indication of such problems. The full investigation will reveal whether the incident was an unforeseen problem with the engine or aircraft, or whether it was a mechanical problem for United.
However, experts disagree on why this particular engine and airframe combination has been grounded by regulators around the world. Harteveldt told Insider that the grounding and inspection requirements set by the Federal Aviation Administration and others may be due to the increased safety environment that exists in aviation following the 737 Max grounding in March 2019.
"I think the FAA wants to be very careful, after what happened to the 737 Max, to understand what that problem is," Harteveldt said.
The FAA was criticized for lack of control following the 737 Max crashes and was one of the last regulatory agencies to bring the now infamous aircraft to the ground. Now, according to Harteveldt, the agency is "extremely careful" with this incident.
"This is definitely an extraordinary step that is being taken, but with intelligent caution," said Harteveldt. "What United, the FAA and Pratt & Whitney want to do is understand why those fan blades are falling apart."
Aboulafia called the move "Par for the Course" because so few Boeing 777 aircraft are currently flying with this type of engine.
"This is what you would do in the face of this incident," Aboulafia said.
What is happening to United?
It remains to be seen how long the grounding will take and how long it will take the airline to perform the necessary inspections that will determine the overall impact.
Meanwhile, flights that were to be flown by the Pratt & Whitney-powered Boeing 777 in the next few days will be swapped for other aircraft such as the Boeing 787 Dreamliner or the Boeing 777-300ER for a distance, depending on factors such as passenger demand and aircraft specific route.
"The landing of these 24 planes in United will definitely have an impact on the operations of the airline," Harteveldt said. "But if there is a time when that happens, it is now that United is operating far fewer flights than normal due to COVID."
This type of aircraft normally spends its life flying overseas routes, but the pandemic has stalled most of those flights. This takes some of the pressure off United, as the planes are not needed as urgently as would be the case with air travel at the 2019 level.
"I don't think it's going to be anything more than a surgical headache," Aboulafia said.
United analysts, according to Harteveldt, are likely to address the medium to long-term effects of grounding and the effects on operations when the airline kicks off into the spring and summer seasons.
Freight is also a major factor that will determine United's next move as airlines rely on freight revenue to offset the loss of passengers. The loss of 24 Boeing 777-200s as one of the airline's largest aircraft will reduce United's cargo capacity in the short term.
However, the Chicago-based airline still has a fleet of active Boeing 777-200 aircraft that are currently flying passengers and cargo. The difference is that they are powered by General Electric engines rather than the PW4000-112 that will be used on planes on Saturday. Airlines usually choose one engine to fly a specific fleet, but United acquired the General Electric-powered aircraft as a result of a merger with Continental Airlines.
United may also consider pulling planes out of storage if the grounding takes more than a few weeks. The airline currently has planes in storage that could be returned to the majors. However, it can take one to two weeks per aircraft to get back into flight condition.
Regardless of which route United is taking, Aboulafia said the grounding should "have no impact" on the airline's overall recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
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