Passengers on United Airlines flight from Denver to Honolulu had moments of horror on February 20 when their plane, a Boeing 777-200, crashed its right engine shortly after takeoff wings, causing a loud bang and causing debris to fall. a quiet Denver suburb. The passenger took the video, Most of it is shared on social media, of the plane’s Pratt & Whitney engine, its shell ripped apart, the turbine vibrated and caught fire. The plane with 231 passengers and 10 crew members returned to Denver and landed safely.
A similar incident happened on the same day in the Netherlands with a Boeing 747-400 cargo jet. The engine of that plane, unlike the Boeing 777 in Colorado, also made by Pratt & Whitney, also caught fire and fired off metal parts before the plane made a safe emergency landing.
Those events are the latest in a series of dramatic failures at high altitude over the past few years. In 2018, another United Airlines flight, also heading to Honolulu, had an engine problem that was almost the same as the one in Colorado. A Japan Airlines flight from Tokyo to Okinawa in 2020. Both planes are also Boeing 777-200 equipped with Pratt & Whitney engines.
Several other planes have had major problems: The mid-air engine explosion of a Southwest jet in 2018 killed passenger Jennifer Riordan. (That plane, a Boeing 737, was powered by an engine produced by CFM International, a joint venture of General Electric and France’s Safran Aircraft Engines.) And then there were two terrible aircraft crashes. The Boeing 737 Max, combined, killed 346 people and groundbreaking the entire fleet for nearly two years.
On Sunday, United, the only US airline to have 777s equipped with those specific Pratt & Whitney engines, ordered all of them to be thoroughly tested before they could fly again, while Boeing said 128 of its 777 jets worldwide should be temporarily decommissioned. . An initial investigation pointed to metal fatigue in the engine’s propeller blades and the FAA on Tuesday said Pratt & Whitney engines on Boeing 777 aircraft must be tested before the plane returns to the sky.
According to statistics, commercial air travel has been shown to be extremely safe, and instances like the episode seen through Colorado on Saturday are rare. But passengers anxious to feel a little more restless may be asking how commercial jets are maintained and maintained, and how much can they find out about the planes they have been assigned to. fly before boarding the plane. Here are some answers.
How do I know what kind of aircraft I will fly and can I switch?
Depending on the airline you’re flying in, identifying the aircraft assigned to you is usually as simple as taking a closer look at your booking. Most airlines post this information right on their online booking page, near the flight details.
If you can’t find it there, websites, including SeatGuru, provide seat maps and customer reviews on most aircraft models and FlightRadar24, allowing visitors to track any flight. flight in real time, both make it easy to view the make and model of the aircraft assigned to any selected flight.
If you’re looking for the engine model of an airplane, you’ll have to dig a little deeper. Airfleets.net will give you that information, but you’ll need the plane’s tail number. It’s a string of six numbers and letters, starting with N, and you can find it by searching for your flight on SeatGuru or FlightRadar24, or if you’re already at the gate, by actually looking at your plane. me. As the name implies, the number is visible on the tail of the plane.
But don’t be surprised if your airline makes a last-minute change that leaves you completely boarding another plane. Such conversions are pervasive, making it useless to book flight-based itineraries.
“What you book today isn’t necessarily the plane you will be flying when the trip arrives,” said Brian Kelly, founder and chief executive officer of tourist loyalty website The Points Guy.
Covid-19, which has changed the flight schedules of many airlines, has made this fact even more common. But it also makes it easier for passengers to switch flights if they’re uncomfortable getting on the plane assigned to them.
“There is no consumer law that states that if you don’t want to fly on a certain type of aircraft, they have to accommodate you, but most airlines are free of charge,” said Mr Kelly. “Changing flights is easier than ever.”
How long will the aircraft be maintained periodically?
Nonstop. Before each flight, the pilot will inspect the aircraft and its equipment; The Federal Aviation Administration requires further inspection of the aircraft to be conducted at least every 100 hours. After about 6,000 flight hours – aircraft-dependent time – the plane receives the so-called C-Test, which will remove them from service for a week or so while the technicians perform a thorough inspection. parts of them. AD Check, the most in-depth maintenance visit, involves dismantling the entire aircraft to check damage in every corner; These things happen every 6 to 10 years.
There are additional, mandatory schedules for maintenance and service inspections as specified by the specific manufacturer of many parts of each aircraft. And there are also unexpected inspections.
“The FAA conducts random inspection of all certified operators, where we can review maintenance records, the aircraft itself or both,” said Ian Gregor, Public Affairs Specialist. plus said the FAA
In United’s 777-200 case, the metal fatigue that caused the engine’s propellers to pop out may not be visible to the naked eye. But those blades were supposed to be examined through thermal imaging, which could reveal relatively recent, microscopic cracks; In March 2019, the FAA ordered further testing of the Pratt & Whitney engine following an engine failure on another United flight.
“We have known about metal fatigue since the Industrial Revolution,” said Mark Baier, chief executive of AviationManuals, a company that produces safety manuals and aviation safety management software. “It was just something happening. But what this proves really is just how safe these drones are, because the plane continues to fly fairly normally. “
Do different airlines have different safety procedures?
Not in the United States. “The FAA regulations apply to all airlines consistently,” said Gregor.
That doesn’t mean the violation doesn’t happen.
Loretta Alkalay, former FAA attorney and assistant professor at Vaughn Aviation University in Queens, NY, said: “It is not unprecedented that airlines are operating with issues of maintenance or cutting corners. Yes. “Certainly there are some operators who are less meticulous than others.”
When an airline violates the regulations, the FAA will initiate enforcement actions, including penalties. They are published on their website and readable to the general public.
Travelers looking for more detailed information on an airline’s safety rating can view the Airline Rating, the safety rating on a seven-star scale based on data on accidents and pilot rates. , audits by the International Civil Aviation Organization and even Covid-19 compliance. The website even has a comparison of selected airlines.
Patrick Smith, a commercial pilot and owner of aviation website Ask the Pilot, said the safety records of all US airlines are so excellent it haunts whether the airline is causing it. Greater risk than other airlines is a waste of time.
“You can drive yourself crazy by mulling the percentages that distinguish one carrier death rate from other carriers,” he said. “For all intents and purposes, they are the same.”
Are old planes less secure than new planes?
The 777 involved in a Colorado incident has been flown since 1995. United’s 2018 flight to Honolulu also had an engine failure in 1996; A Boeing plane crashed in the Java Sea in Indonesia in January was 26 years old. Should passengers be wary of old aircraft?
“The data doesn’t really do that,” says Baier. “And a lot of old aircraft are upgraded with new equipment or systems.”
Also, the more a plane has to fly, the more maintenance it is required. “Commercial jets are built to last more or less indefinitely,” said the pilot, Smith. “The older the plane is, the more care it needs, and the more rigorous the testing criteria are.”
Mr. Kelly, of The Points Guy, explained on his website that anyone can check the age of an aircraft on FlightRadar24, as long as they have paid for the site’s Silver membership. However, for his part, he said that he doesn’t consider the age of the plane when booking. “The 737 Max is a brand new plane,” he said, “and it’s very problematic. I wouldn’t say the old plane is any less secure than the new one.
If problems are discovered during standard maintenance checks, what happens next?
The pilot will call in a maintenance team who will try to fix the problem on the ground (usually while passengers wait at the gate). If the problem is small but can’t be fixed immediately, the plane can still fly – airline operators follow a document called the Minimum Equipment List, a list of possible systems and parts doesn’t work and the plane can still fly.
If the maintenance problem is severe and the aircraft is unable to fly until it is repaired, it will be out of service until it is fixed. Safety issues with parts and aircraft cause the FAA to issue aviation conformance directives, which inform all airlines using similar equipment that testing is required. and take corrective action.
Before the plane in question returns to service, the crew will run a series of tests, possibly including a flight or two, before supervisors sign the mechanic’s job.
And what if the problem arises mid-flight, as happened on February 20? The pilots are ready for such moments, said Dan Bubb, a former pilot and aviation history expert at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
“When you’re flying, you’re always predicting what might happen to get over it,” Mr. Bubb said. “Pilots go through training regularly for all sorts of situations. And when that happens, your training will begin. The pilots performed a textbook job of safely landing that plane. “
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