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United's string of scary safety events likely has nothing to do with Boeing

Taylor Rains   

United's string of scary safety events likely has nothing to do with Boeing
  • United Airlines has experienced a string of safety events, many of which involved Boeing jets.
  • Some experts point to problems within United, while others say the timing is just a "coincidence."

From a missing panel to a tire falling off midair, United Airlines has experienced multiple high-profile safety incidents over the past few weeks.

With the exception of one, a hydraulics issue on an Airbus A320, most of the mishaps have involved Boeing planes, helping fuel a PR crisis at the planemaker and further shaking flyer confidence — even when they have little to do with the jets' manufacturer.

These include:

  • a 757 that was forced to divert due to wing damage,

  • a second 757 that suffered an engine failure over the Pacific Ocean

  • a 737 Max that rolled onto the grass in Houston

  • another Max that experienced a "stuck" rudder pedal after landing

  • a 737-800 (not the Max) that landed without a fuselage panel

  • and a 777 that lost its wheel after taking off from San Francisco, among others

Although the stuck rudder pedal could point to yet another potential flaw in Boeing's Max aircraft, the manufacturer — despite an ongoing quality-control controversy — may not be at fault for the others.

Instead, some aviation experts have pointed to a possible trend in United's maintenance safety systems.

"That's not really a Boeing problem. That's an old airplane," Arthur Rosenberg said on Fox News on Sunday, referring to the 22-year-old 777. "Tires get changed, maintenance people, mechanics at United, change the tires. Something went amiss. I would say, on a recent tire change or some repair, which caused that to come off."

Regarding the missing panel, he said, "that smacks of a maintenance problem of United Airlines." The 737 plane involved is about 25 years old, according to Planespotters.

Aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia gave Business Insider a similar take.

"If it's an older jet like a 737NG, it's very definitely a maintenance issue," he said. "There's still a possible reputational impact to Boeing, but maintenance is up to airlines and third-party providers."

ABC News aviation expert Steve Ganyard speculated the wing damage on United's nearly 30-year-old 757 could have been a "kind of fatigue."

"That airplane is fairly old, and perhaps the part just gave way because of age or because of use, or it could have been some sort of maintenance problem where it wasn't properly rigged, and it was rubbing against the wing itself," he explained.

No injuries were reported across the string of events, and they appear largely unconnected in regard to plane type, route, and specific anomalies.

Former Delta Air Lines chief pilot, Alan Price, noted safety redundancies in some events played out as they were designed to.

"In aviation, we never want to have single points of failure if they can be avoided, and this is a case in point," he told the Associated Press earlier in March, commenting on the 777's lost wheel. "The remaining tires are fully capable of handling the load."

Aviation analyst Kit Darby told CBS MoneyWatch on Tuesday that the timing of the events is simply a matter of "coincidence," noting losing the tire is "extremely rare."

Mark Millam, director of technical programs at the Flight Safety Foundation, told the outlet that the events aren't indicative of a safety issue at United: "These incidents aren't enough to come to some determination on one airline's performance versus another's."

United CEO says safety is the airline's top priority

In an effort to reassure customers after many of the events made headlines, CEO Scott Kirby sent a memo on Monday saying the series of incidents are "reminders of the importance of safety."

"While they are all unrelated, I want you to know that these incidents have our attention and have sharpened our focus," Kirby said.

He explained the company is reviewing each event to "understand what happened and using those insights to inform our safety training and procedures across all employee groups."

United declined to offer any additional comment.

Kirby said safety enhancements like an extra day of pilot training and a "centralized training curriculum" for new-hire mechanics, which were planned before the recent safety events, are actively being deployed.

United's string of safety lapses comes on the heels of the Alaska Airlines 737 Max 9 doorplug blowout — which has led to heightened scrutiny of Boeing airplanes and forced airlines to grapple with fewer aircraft deliveries and potentially higher airfare for customers.

United, one of the more heavily impacted US airlines by the Max crisis, is expecting fewer aircraft deliveries this year and is looking at Airbus to fill the void.

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