United cancels flights, grounds 777s for checks

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - United Airlines, a unit of UAL Corp, became on Wednesday the latest major U.S. carrier to ground planes and cancel flights due to a lapse in maintenance work.

A United Airlines 777 in an undated photo. United Airlines said it canceled a number of long-haul flights on Wednesday as it grounded its 52 Boeing 777 jets for checks. REUTERS/Boeing/Handout

United grounded its fleet of 52 Boeing Co 777s and canceled 38 flights after disclosing to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) overnight that tests on a cargo hold fire suppression system were not thorough enough.

The disclosure comes just ahead of a congressional hearing on airline inspection practices and the adequacy of FAA oversight.

Four of United’s rivals have in recent weeks sidelined aircraft and canceled flights for missed inspections and other safety problems.

Southwest Airlines Co faces an FAA fine of up to $10.2 million for knowingly operating aircraft that were not in compliance with an agency order to check for fuselage cracks. Cracks were found in some planes after the lapse was disclosed.

Southwest chief executive Gary Kelly is scheduled to testify on Thursday before the House of Representatives Transportation Committee on why the airline missed inspections and the subsequent decision by top level maintenance personal to keep planes in the air. The case was prompted by whistle-blower complaints to the panel.

“There is a lack of an enforcement mindset at the FAA,” said Democratic Rep. James Oberstar of Minnesota, who has led the investigation into Southwest and will chair the hearing.

Senior FAA officials will testify about the agency’s role. They will also address allegations the FAA has become cozy with airlines and assertions the system that allows carriers to self-report maintenance problems is open to abuse. Southwest and FAA personnel involved in the matter in Dallas, where the airline in based, have been removed from their jobs.

“We had a breakdown in the system with Southwest Airlines,” acting FAA Administrator Bobby Sturgell told a news conference on Wednesday. “There is no excuse. We have taken appropriate action.”

Sturgell said a sweeping FAA safety review of airline compliance with inspection orders, that began after the Southwest incident, found a handful of discrepancies that required further investigation. He would not describe the problems or identify the four airlines still being probed.

Responding to allegations that front line FAA managers have at times ignored safety concerns raised by inspectors, Sturgell said the FAA would now permit inspectors to report lapses to higher level authorities.

The FAA will also require that senior level airline officials, instead of maintenance personnel, be responsible for reporting inspection problems. “We have found ways to increase the accountability of all parties,” Sturgell said.

The industry, through its lead trade group, the Air Transport Association, said it welcomed the changes.


United said it had canceled 38 of its 84 daily 777 departures, mainly for lucrative flights to Europe and Asia. More cancellations are possible on Thursday, it said.

United said it voluntarily disclosed the maintenance shortfall to the FAA and would not operate the planes until the tests are completed. United Chief Executive Glenn Tilton said in a message to employees the problem was related to a “discrepancy” in Boeing’s maintenance manual that was only revised in January.

Tilton said United was consulting with Boeing on the matter. A Boeing spokeswoman could not immediately be reached for comment.

“The FAA and other airlines will have to determine if tests will be required on their fleets,” Tilton said.

An FAA spokeswoman said the action taken by United was unrelated to its safety review, which did prompt groundings last week at AMR Corp’s American Airlines and Delta Air Lines Inc. Both canceled hundreds of flights to reinspect wiring on 430 MD-80s.

During its troubles in mid-March, Southwest grounded dozens of 737s after voluntarily disclosing a second lapsed inspection on fuselage checks.

In another safety setback, US Airways Group Inc Airbus unit, to skid off the runway in Chicago last October and in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, in February.

Additional reporting by Bill Rigby, editing by Tim Dobbyn