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FAA proposes $1.1 million fine for United over missed inspections

Feb. 6, 2023 Updated Mon., Feb. 6, 2023 at 7:34 p.m.

United Airlines aircraft sit on the tarmac at San Francisco International Airport.  (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg)
United Airlines aircraft sit on the tarmac at San Francisco International Airport. (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg)
By Ian Duncan Washington Post

The Federal Aviation Administration alleged Monday that United Airlines changed a preflight checklist on its Boeing 777s, leading to missed inspections on more than 100,000 flights. The agency is proposing to fine the airline $1.1 million for the alleged violation.

United has 30 days to submit a formal response to safety regulators. In a statement, the airline said that it would review the proposed penalty and that “the safety of our flights was never in question.”

The issue dates to 2018, when the FAA alleges United removed an inspection of a fire system warning from a preflight checklist for the Boeing planes. Flying without the check meant the planes could not meet airworthiness requirements.

The checks are supposed to be performed by flight crews every 24 hours, according to a letter the FAA sent to United chief executive Scott Kirby outlining the allegations. But between June 2018 and April 2021, United flew the 777s 102,488 times without the checks, the FAA alleges.

An FAA safety inspector discovered in April 2021 that the checks were not being completed and United issued a bulletin to pilots the same day, according to the FAA’s letter. Nonetheless, the agency alleges that six aircraft were allowed to depart without the checks despite the issue having been uncovered – a lapse the FAA says was a deliberate violation of aviation rules.

United said that it made the 2018 change to account for “redundant built-in checks performed automatically by the 777” and that the FAA reviewed the change. Once the FAA notified United in 2021 that its maintenance program required pilots to conduct the checks, the airline said, it immediately updated its procedures.

It is relatively uncommon for the FAA to call for major airlines to pay such penalties. In recent years, the agency has prioritized addressing potential safety issues on a collaborative basis.

But there are examples of the FAA pursuing penalties in some other recent cases. In 2020, the agency proposed a $3.9 million fine against Southwest Airlines over allegations that it operated flights without the right weight and balance data. In 2017, the FAA proposed a $435,000 fine against United, accusing the airline of briefly flying a potentially unsafe Boeing 787.

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