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United Faces Potential $1.1 Million Fine Over Boeing 777 Preflight Checks

The Chicago-based carrier has been accused of cutting corners with its pre-flight safety checks over a three-year period

by Lauren Smith

February 7, 2023

Photo: United Airlines, Boeing 777-300ER. Courtesy of Ramapasha Laksono / Unsplash

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) intends to fine United Airlines $1.1 million after the carrier removed a fire system safety check from the pre-flight checklist on its Boeing 777 fleet. As a result, United operated several planes that were not airworthy.

The regulatory action stems from a June 2018 decision by the Chicago-based carrier to scrap the fire system warning check from the 777’s mandatory pre-flight checklist. The checks were not routinely performed until April 2021, when the FAA intervened and instructed United that pilots must complete them as part of their pre-flight activities.

“Removal of the check resulted in United’s failure to perform the required check and the operation of aircraft that did not meet airworthiness requirements,” the FAA said in a statement.

More than 100,000 flights at fault

Between those dates, United operated 102,488 flights with 96 Boeing 777 aircraft, accounting for 11% of its total fleet.

The civil aviation regulator is now proposing fining the airline $1,149,306, it wrote in a letter to United’s CEO, Scott Kirby.

United maintains that the checks were redundant and that the FAA cleared the changes to the pre-flight checklist at the time. It also insists that the flights were safe. However, the Boeing 777’s maintenance specification manual requires the fire system warning check.

Photo: Boeing 777 flight deck. Courtesy of Franz Harvin Aceituna / Unsplash

“The safety of our flights was never in question.,” said a spokesperson for the airline. “In 2018, United changed its pre-flight checklist to account for redundant built-in checks performed automatically by the 777.”

United added that the FAA “reviewed and approved the checklist change at the time it was done.”

An official familiar with the matter said the fire system safety check was removed when United consolidated its pre-flight procedures for the Boeing 777 and 787. On the latter—a newer technology plane with automated checklists—the airplane’s avionics automatically perform the checks during all phases of flight.

Photo: United Airlines, Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner. Courtesy of United Airlines.

United, in its statement, said the check is also automatically performed on the 777 via an upgraded system. The airline added that it “immediately updated its procedures” when notified of the breach by the FAA in 2021.

The spokesperson added that the airline is reviewing the proposed penalty. It has 30 days to respond to the FAA’s civil penalty letter.

Not the first breach

This isn’t the first time United has failed to perform required checks on its Boeing 777s. In 2008, it briefly grounded its fleet of 52 777s after discovering that mechanics were routinely not performing safety checks on a component in the fire-suppression system in the planes’ cargo holds.

More recently, in September 2022, the carrier temporarily removed 25 777s from service after discovering it had failed to perform a required inspection on the aircraft’s leading-edge wing panels.

In both cases, the planes were quickly returned to service after inspections.