United Postpones Start of Faro, Cebu Due to FAA Restrictions

Government Regulation, Safety/Security, United

Rumors had been swirling, but on March 22, United’s VP of Corporate Safety Sasha Johnson put out an internal memo explaining that the airline would be under increased scrutiny from the FAA due to a string of non-life threatening but highly-publicized incidents. The wording was vague regarding what that meant in concrete terms, but now we know one thing as confirmed with the airline. It can’t open new cities, and both Newark – Faro and Tokyo – Cebu will not fly this summer.

The list of incidents coming out of United was long but not particularly noteworthy. According to The Aviation Herald (I added the March 7 incident from other sources), here is a list of what’s happened between the beginning of the year and March 22 that could possibly be blamed on United. (I left out lightning strikes, bird strikes, etc.)

  • January 6, 2024 – A 757-200 lost cabin pressure flying Newark – Denver, so it diverted to Chicago
  • January 10, 2024 – An A319 had a door-open indicator (which doesn’t appear to have been real) after departing Sarasota, so it diverted to Tampa
  • January 24, 2024 – An A321neo had an engine failure flying from Chicago to Las Vegas, so it returned to Chicago
  • January 28, 2024 – A 737-800 had a windshield crack while flying from Vegas to Dulles, so it diverted to Denver
  • January 31, 2024 – A 737-800 had an engine failure flying from Charlotte to Houston, so it diverted to Atlanta
  • February 1, 2024 – A 777-200 had a smoke warning when approaching Hong Kong on a flight from San Francisco, it landed safely but when they had to ferry it back for maintenance, an engine failure forced them to abort takeoff
  • February 6, 2024 – A 737-8 MAX from Nassau reportedly lost use of rudder upon landing in Newark, a further investigation shows that it may be a problem with “cold soaking” of the rollout guidance servo
  • February 16, 2024 – A 737-800 from Kahului to San Francisco lost cabin pressure, so it diverted to Honolulu
  • February 17, 2024 – A 767-400 from Washington/Dulles to Honolulu had its tail strike the runway on departure, so it returned to Dulles
  • February 19, 2024 – A 757-200 from San Francisco to Boston had a piece of the slats on the right side break off, so it diverted to Denver
  • February 20, 2024 – A 737-800 from Colorado Springs to Denver had a tire burst upon departure, and it landed in Denver
  • March 4, 2024 – A 737-900 from Houston to Fort Myers had an engine stall on climb-out, so it returned to Houston
  • March 4, 2024 – A 757-300 from Honolulu to San Francisco had to shut down an engine, and it landed safely in San Francisco
  • March 7, 2024 – A 777-200 from San Francisco to Osaka had a tire fall off after departure, so it diverted to Los Angeles
  • March 8, 2024 – An A320 from San Francisco to Mexico City had one of its three hydraulic systems fail, so it diverted to Los Angeles
  • March 9, 2024 – An A320 from Chicago to Salt Lake City had an oil warning come on, so it returned to Chicago
  • March 11, 2024 – A 777-300ER from Sydney to San Francisco had a hydraulic leak from the gear on climbout, so it returned to Sydney
  • March 14, 2024 – An A320 from Dallas/Fort Worth to San Francisco had a hydraulic leak, and it landed safely in San Francisco
  • March 17, 2024 – A 737-800 from New York/LaGuardia to Chicago had an air data indication issue (meaning conflicting or incorrect data), and it landed safely in Chicago
  • March 18, 2024 – A 767-300ER from Newark to London had a gear issue, so it returned to Newark

If you are a casual traveler, this list probably looks absolutely terrifying. But if you work on or around airplanes, you know that this stuff is mostly pretty routine. Hydraulic leaks, cracked windshields, warning lights… these happen all the time and aren’t particularly concerning in small numbers. And yes, these are small numbers.

Think about it this way. United had 335,114 departures scheduled between January 1 and March 22… and 20 of those flights had problems. That is 0.006 percent.

This is also not just isolated to United. The Aviation Herald shows Delta with 13 and American with 14 during the same time period. Heck, just yesterday Southwest had an engine cowling fly off.

Certainly United’s issues have been in the news more than the others. Some of that is due to the optics of it all. The video of the tire flying off the 777? That’s news gold right there. The broken slat on the United 757? Yup, someone onboard had a great video that got shared everywhere. While I haven’t seen it confirmed, I’ve seen it suggested this could have happened from a bird strike on takeoff. It’s unlikely the thing broke because of United’s maintenance.

Oh and that one rudder issue on the MAX? It sounds like it might be a defect pending further investigation, but it doesn’t matter, because… MAX!

With the news covering all of this in great detail, the FAA must have decided that it had to look like it was taking important action. So it did. According to that internal memo from United, the FAA agreed with United that the airline needed to “take an even closer look at multiple areas of our operation to ensure we are doing all we can to promote and drive safety compliance.”

The most important thing that United mentioned in that memo was this:

As part of this effort, the FAA will also pause a variety of certification activities for a period of time. Those activities will differ depending on the work group and we will learn more from the FAA about that soon.

This was somewhat vague at the time, and we didn’t know what the impact would be. It sounds like United didn’t know either.

But on Friday night, United canceled its new planned service from Newark to Faro this summer, but it does expect it to fly in summer 2025. The airline also delayed the start of the new Tokyo/Narita – Cebu flight from August until the end of the IATA summer season in late October.

Apparently, one of those now-paused certification activities is the ability to open up a new station. I imagine this might go deeper than that, but the details just aren’t entirely clear at this point. I did ask the FAA for comment as well, but they simply referred me back to United.

This seems like a very strange move by the FAA, but without more information, I assume it points back to United’s ops leadership team failing to take care of that relationship. If you’re open and transparent, the FAA tends to be a lot easier to work with. Then again, it could also be that the FAA just needed a scapegoat to show it was doing its job after its reputation took a beating during the MAX debacle. But even if that were the case, the FAA is going to make an example out of the most difficult airline it deals with. At least some of the blame has to lie on United’s ops leaders.

Opening a new station is not a heavy lift for United, and it is highly unlikely that this will somehow refocus the company. If the FAA was truly concerned about safety, you’d think it would do something more immediate and drastic. Instead, it can just do a couple of higher profile moves like this to show that it is paying attention.

Now the real question is… how long is this going to go on? We don’t know, and I don’t think United does either. In the memo, we get a hint where United says “Over the next several weeks, we will begin to see more of an FAA presence in our operation….” I asked United if they’d had any more info since the memo was sent, but they said they had “no additional details” to share.

We still don’t know how long it’ll take to complete the process, which is presumably when United will be able to resume flying to new places again. I would imagine that delaying Cebu until late October is what United considers to be a conservative move so it doesn’t have to inconvenience more people, but as we’ve learned time and time again, the government operates on its own timeline.

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44 comments on “United Postpones Start of Faro, Cebu Due to FAA Restrictions

  1. Sounds like UnTIED airlines has a lot of loose ends that need to be tied up. ? However it seems to me that there seems to be a lot more coverage in the regular media of non life treating incidents since N704AK had the unplanned departure of the plug door.

    1. Needed to correct the tail number in the comment it should be N704AL. Unfortunately AK was involved in a fatal accident.

  2. United clearly has a problem, and it’s not related to Boeing’s tribulations. These are simply too many incidents, and not just heightened media scrutiny. The airline has moved past its many problems, but not entirely, and still has pockets of issues which need to be resolved.

    1. United has internal email updates that employees can subscribe to, see these and many more incidents that are, as Cranky says, both very rare (0.006%) and very routine. But sure, go off lavander larry.

  3. Pardon the ignorance but how would the FAA be able to stop a Tokyo/Cebu flight from happening? How can they assert authority on a flight between two non-US destinations?

    Also pardon the East Coast ignorance, but why is United Flying 737s from Colorado Springs to Denver? That route seems much more suited for a CRJ2 or an E45…

    1. COS-DEN was/is/and always will be about feeding the DEN hub. UA ran DC-10s at one point during their DEN pissing match with CO way back when.

    2. Every US airline has a Continuous Airworthiness Maintenance Program (CAMP) agreement with the FAA that has extremely detailed provisions and metrics. It is normal for the FAA to adjust its level of scrutiny on an airline if those metrics cross specific thresholds. Additionally, every operational change requires FAA approval (including every new aircraft and city pair). Most of the time these activities don’t make the news.

    3. US scheduled carriers can only fly scheduled flights between stations that are listed on their certificate, and you can only add an airport to your certificate with FAA agreement.

      So, if the FAA doesn’t allow you to add it to your certificate, you can’t legally fly there with scheduled flights. This has nothing to do with economic authority, and everything to do with operational authority.

      This seems like the FAA taking an action that, while having a very mild economic effect, will very much get the attention at the top of United. Whether the FAA is justified in taking that step, who knows, but there’s little doubt it got the effect the FAA wanted – for sure this is now on Scott Kirby’s agenda.

      At the end of the day, it matters little to the finances of United whether it gets to fly to Cebu or Faro, but it sure is embarrassing that it can’t.

  4. Somewhat off topic, but because Cranky mentioned it in passing…

    This video (showing radar animation + ATC conversations with captions) of the Southwest incident in Denver yesterday is worth watching: https://youtu.be/GBQkk4RcidA?si=p-LcCPY_SRx0dQOz

    Absolutely AMAZING professionalism & work by the Southwest pilots and Denver-area ATC on that incident. Hope those pilots & ATC get some awards for that; that is how CRM is supposed to work in emergencies.

      1. You’re welcome. That’s one of my favorite channels on YouTube.

        The guy behind that channel, Victor, is a young(ish) professional pilot in Spain who publishes a lot of videos like that, often mere hours after the incidents occur.

  5. As for the cracked windshield, “safelite repair, safelite replace.” As for the stalling engine, “watch your stall speed.”

  6. Because the pricing and scheduling tends to force me through EWR to get to LHR, I am pretty much stuck flying on 763s. These wonderful old birds go tech one flight every three that I take with UA (taking 20 flights a year on them), and it’s getting really very dull. How much of this is poor maintenance and how much is just that they are just old, I don’t know. But it really does suck. Can’t wait for the new 787s to arrive (and bring a whole new bunch of Boeing issues with them…).

    1. But, but, but, the more Boeing issues the more amazing analysis cranky gives us. Think about poor cranky!

    2. If flying in Y, I would take a 2-3-2 seating config on the 767 any day over the 787’s tight 3-3-3

      1. I agree – it’s not the comfort, it’s the reliability I have issues with. When you have tight schedules, missing half a day (or worse) really screws up a trip. I’ll be sad to see the 767s finally retire, but not if they take their maintenance issues with them.

  7. Cranky – Do you believe some of the FAA’s scrutiny of United is a public relations play to calm passenger nerves? Seems like the high profile nature of these incidents (even though they are mostly minor), could be a driving factor.

    1. Eric – Yes, for sure. The FAA has been beated up so it has to be more on the offensive after basically outsourcing functions to Boeing re: certification. It definitely feels the need to show it has teeth.

  8. Regardless of the type of situation, everyone wants to think that “everyone else is also doing it” when focus shifts to them. The FAA undoubtedly chose to start a safety audit on UA not just because of the number of incidents but also the frequency, severity, predictability and preventability. Only the FAA knows why they chose to initiate a safety review of UA but there are indications that there are systemic issues that could lead to reducing future incidents.

    It is also noteworthy that UA’s MCO ALPA LEC came out early in this process as listing a number of growth restrictions which the FAA was imposing. Many came out and said that they were wrong but not adding new cities was one of the issues they listed so it isn’t at all clear what the FAA has imposed and what UA simply came to realize was in their best interest to do in order to resolve the safety audit. It isn’t normal for airlines to cancel route launches on short notice so there is likely some validity.

    UA also postponed its investor day which was scheduled in the next couple weeks specifically citing the FAA review and not just aircraft delivery delays. The chances are fairly high that the FAA’s audit is impacting UA’s ability to grow on top of uncertainty about aircraft deliveries.

    The real question is whether other airlines also get an FAA audit.

    1. How do the number of incidents over this period of time differ from past years? I tend to believe with smartphones & social media, it has become more publicized (anecdotal of course).

      1. The FAA has never solely relied on smart phones or passenger video to manage safety. Those things do help determine causes a lot faster at the FAA knew about problems long before smartphones existed. Customer amenities and safety are not exclusionary. Both can do exist side-by-side. Again, other airlines are having safety issues. The FAA will audit them as well.

      2. > … from past years

        Smart phones have been around for around 20 years. Same with social media. Even if ubiquitous adaption only happened, say, in the last 10-12 years, I don’t think increased publicity has really been driven by that. The AS door blow-out on the other hand was a pretty dramatic and photo-genic event…

        I have a video somewhere from a UA trip on a 747 where we “lost” an engine shortly after takeoff and made an emergency landing at SFO (I use that term because they rolled the fire trucks, not because it seemed particularly scary). I didn’t post it anywhere back then even though I had social media. Don’t know if anyone else did – obviously I wasn’t the only one with a window seat.

        We should also all remember how amazingly safe commercial air travel is. Compared to other modes of transportation (walking, cars, buses, trains), there are so many more things that have to go right for a good outcome, and that exactly happens thousands and thousands of times each day simply because of the focus on safety by everyone involved (other than passengers).

    2. Tim, Brett’s article points out that the numbers are similar between UA, DL, and AA.

      Optics play a huge role in this. DL is extremely fortunate that there wasn’t “good” footage of its own engine panel that came off a relatively new A330, and also that the wheel coming off a DL 757 in ATL was not more widely covered in the news, likely because the timing in January was before the media outlets were whipped into a frenzy.

      When so much of this is related to optics and media coverage, this could have been anyone, especially when the facts shows DL had as many issues as the others.

      1. Mark,
        according to CF’s data, UA had 50% more incidents than AA or DL.
        Considering that WN operates the most mainline flights followed by DL then AA then AA, there is a statistically higher percentage of incidents on UA than other carriers.
        And WN is probably higher than AA or DL; if there is any airline that is at risk of being next in line for an FAA audit, it is WN based on the string of engine related incidents.

        And, again, the FAA isn’t just looking at the rate of incidents but whether there are human factors and if there is the potential to reduce risk in the future.

        The FAA did investigate the DL wheel incident as well as most other incidents; that is just what they do.

        They are investigating UA because they found enough to indicate there are likely systemic issues.

        If they find the same thing with any other airline, they will investigate. Don’t you worry.

        and the FAA is not imposing restrictions on any other US airline’s ability to grow in any way.

      2. This was the first CF article I’ve read with a Tim Dunn comment that didn’t reference Delta… until someone else brought Delta up for him. So close.

  9. Then there are those who think the only thing that’s important to an airline’s product and service is having a personal TV set in the seat back in front of them. Airline safety has become better and better over time. That’s because there are people in the industry who value safety over entertainment.

  10. Something tells me if the media didn’t get footage of the 777’s tire falling off at SFO and the FAA didn’t completely drop the ball with Boeing, we wouldn’t be hearing about any of this.

    I’d be interested to see the numbers of incidents in similar periods of past years for US airlines, adjusted for the number of daily aircraft movements to see how much of an outlier UA this year actually is.

  11. It’s regulators over-reacting to the last incident rather than preventing the next one. Other than the paint on the metal, there does not seem to be a pattern in the incidents Cranky laid out.

    There’s a lot of obscure FAA paper pushers whose day and maybe week might be ruined if they’re dragged before Congress. Not to mention their careers may be on the line. So act. Do something. Or Congress might, just might do something for you!


    1. That route does not start until October so most likely they’ll wait until closer in to make any decisions.

  12. Increased FAA scrutiny of Boeing has certainly paid dividends. Said nobody ever. More window dressing to pretend this agency is actually doing “something” even though that’s extremely unlikely to provide any real benefit to the flying public.

  13. I don’t think it’s so much as the fairly common issues that United had had lately but rather United may not be the most upfront to the FAA about things. If you’re transparent and everything is in order then the FAA won’t put you under scrutiny. I feel like, as with everything, we don’t know the full story and there must be some red flags behind the scenes that caused the FAA enough concern to focus more on United right now.

  14. Sorry to have missed the conversation on this yesterday. I typically agree with everything from Brett but this piece strikes me as too airline-friendly. 20 incidents is ~50% more than the 13 and 14 at DL and AA… pretty statistically significant in my book.

    UA is flying some dinosaurs around too and has the oldest fleet in the US by several years. The fact that many of these happened on older 757s, 767s, and 777s probably shouldn’t be glossed over either.

    Not that every incident deserves the coverage it gets, but the chains of events in disasters almost always start with innocuous problems. If you’ve got an airline with 50% more innocuous problems, it deserves more scrutiny and as a member of the flying public I’m glad its getting it.

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