What’s Going on With All the United Airplane Incidents? Aviation Experts Weigh In.

There have been at least 10 maintenance and flight diversion issues on United airplanes over the past few weeks.

United Airlines aircraft parked at an airport gate as seen from above

“Safety is our highest priority and is at the center of everything we do,” United CEO Scott Kirby said in a letter sent to customers this week.

Photo by Chris Leipelt/Unsplash

In recent weeks, United Airlines aircraft have experienced at least 10 maintenance and flight diversion issues, some more dramatic than others. While United CEO Scott Kirby issued a statement this week saying the issues were “all unrelated” and “have our attention and have sharpened our focus,” nervous fliers may be wondering if this “focus” is enough.

We looked into what happened in the recent United Airlines incidents, what the airline is doing to address them, and how this may influence your travel decisions.

United Airlines’ recent safety incidents

Below is a list of 10 United Airlines flight incidents reported in the news in the first three weeks of March. While Boeing has been in the hot seat ever since the plug door blew out on an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737-9 Max in January, it’s worth noting that these issues occurred across multiple aircraft types manufactured by Boeing and Airbus. No injuries were reported in any of these incidents, but one passenger from the Houston flight (mentioned below) stated that “people screaming and sending goodbye texts (and) emails mid-air will affect mental health for years to come.”

Here’s a recap:

  • On March 4, there were two incidents, one on a Boeing 737-900 involving a United flight from Houston to Fort Myers, Florida, which returned to the airport for an emergency landing after the engine sucked in plastic bubble wrap and burst into flames. The second incident was on a Boeing 757-300; a United flight from Honolulu to San Francisco declared an emergency when a single engine shut down over the Pacific. The plane landed safely at San Francisco International Airport (SFO), and passengers disembarked “normally,” according to a United Airlines statement quoted by the SF Chronicle.
  • On March 7, a United flight on a Boeing 777-200 from San Francisco to Osaka, Japan, safely made an emergency landing at Los Angeles after the aircraft lost a tire, which fell and destroyed a parked car at SFO.
  • On March 8, a United flight on a Boeing 737-8 Max from Memphis, Tennessee, to Houston skidded off the runway upon landing and ended up tilted askew on the grass beside the tarmac. That same day, a United flight on an Airbus A320 from San Francisco to Mexico City diverted to Los Angeles after experiencing hydraulic system issues.
  • On March 9, a United flight on an Airbus A320 from Chicago O’Hare to Salt Lake City returned to Chicago after reporting maintenance issues involving an oil warning light.
  • On March 11, a United flight on a Boeing 777-300ER from Sydney, Australia, to San Francisco returned to the airport after takeoff due to a hydraulic leak.
  • On March 14, a United flight on an Airbus A320 from Dallas to San Francisco experienced a hydraulic leak prior to landing, with smoke visible near the landing gear. Also on March 14, a Boeing 737-800 flight from San Francisco landed at Oregon’s Medford Airport missing an external panel.
  • On March 18, a United flight on a Boeing 777-200 aircraft scheduled to fly from SFO to Osaka returned to the gate after a nearly two-hour wait on the tarmac, and passengers deplaned. The pilot announced, “Right engine not working.”
I’m confident that we’ll learn the right lessons from these recent incidents and continue to run an operation that puts safety first.
United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby

How United Airlines is addressing the issues

Following the series of incidents, on March 18, Kirby sent a statement to customers trying to assure them that everything is okay.

“Unfortunately, in the past few weeks, our airline has experienced a number of incidents that are reminders of the importance of safety,” Kirby said in the statement. “While they are all unrelated, I want you to know that these incidents have our attention and have sharpened our focus.”

He added, “Safety is our highest priority and is at the center of everything we do. . . . I’m confident that we’ll learn the right lessons from these recent incidents and continue to run an operation that puts safety first.”

United also highlighted already planned upcoming pilot and maintenance training programs in the statement. Kirby noted that the airline will add resources to “supplier network management,” implying some blame may lay elsewhere.

Some passengers affected by the flight incidents felt United’s response has been limited and that it offered minimal reimbursements. For the flaming-engine situation in Houston, United gave passengers a $15 meal credit and $100 credit for future travel, which was raised to $200 after customers pushed back. “[Customer] service treated it like it was a mere flight delay, minimized and discounted the emotional toll it took on the passengers,” according to passenger Jonathan Boulahanis, who posted about his experience on X (formerly Twitter).

How these incidents might affect your travels

While United’s response to the incidents might appear underwhelming, industry experts aren’t panicking about safety issues regarding the airline.

“It’s understandable that the recent incidents and mechanical issues involving United aircraft are concerning to travelers, but it does not appear that there is any systemic problem,” Hassan Shahidi, CEO of the Flight Safety Foundation, an aviation research and safety advocacy organization founded in 1945, said via an emailed statement to AFAR. “Each event was unique, involving different aircraft types and unrelated to the other issues. All are under investigation by United technical and safety experts, who are determining what happened and why and will put in mitigations to prevent similar occurrences from happening in the future.”

“Very little of this [United situation] is significant,” Brian Sumers, industry analyst and founder of the Airline Observer newsletter, told AFAR. “Every day, airplanes return to an airport numerous times because of safety or maintenance issues. United has nearly 1,000 airplanes. . . . I would be surprised, frankly, if the airline didn’t have a couple of unscheduled landings every single day.”

One potential effect of the high-profile incidents may be increased flight delays. With the heightened publicity around recent issues, expect United and other airlines to take extra time to perform maintenance and safety due diligence prior to flight takeoffs, swap in new planes when needed, and potentially cancel flights more often due to an overabundance of caution to avoid any potential issues with an aircraft.

Bill Fink is a freelance travel writer for outlets including AARP, BBC Travel, Frommer’s, Lonely Planet, National Geographic, Outside, SF Chronicle, and Yahoo Travel. Among many writing awards, Bill won Lowell Thomas Golds for Investigative Journalism and Newspaper Travel, and his stories have been included in The Best of Lonely Planet Travel Writing, Travelers’ Tales Best Travel Writing, and The Best American Travel Writing.
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