United Airlines’ Boeing 777 grounding has nothing to do with safety

This is not funny anymore. United Airlines has today grounded its Boeing 777 fleet. That follows the grounding of a chunk of its 747 fleet. Those follow American Airlines’ action on its MD-80s, and Delta’s similar action on its MD-80 fleet. Oh, and American Eagle with its ERJ-145s.

All of which followed the Southwest Airlines 737 events and congressman James Oberstar’s thunderous reaction.

The United incidents are particularly ridiculous – stranding thousands of passengers in countries around the world. The 747 action was sparked when a foreign maintenance house confessed to United that an instrument that it used to calibrate the 747′s altimetry system had not itself been calibrated in line with its schedule.

The 777 farago is because “the functional test that checks the firing system on one of the five bottles in the cargo fire suppression system on the Boeing 777 was not performed”. The system is tested in the pre-flights by the way.

And the other groundings are in similar vein, often related to checks that are carried out at intervals of months and which sparked panic because they may have been performed days late. Nobody thinks anybody was put in danger. And this all comes at a time when the US safety record is better than at any time in history.

It may well be that some FAA inspectors have got too close to the airlines they inspect – I don’t know, but could be. But that is no justification for this sort of lunacy.

Taking safety action on any grounds other than actual safety – in the real sense of the word – starts the industry on a very slippery slope. In the UK – and perhaps elsewhere – there are occasional stories about motorists not pulling over to let ambulances get through crowded traffic. In part that’s because of a sprinkling of anecdotes – mythical or otherwise – that sirens and flashing lights are sometimes abused to get crews home for tea quickly.

What’s happened here has chipped away at the reputation of the aviation business for not fooling around with safety. It doesn’t come across as sensibly conservative, but as willing to dump on passengers for reasons to do with politics and labor relations.

It’s time the US airlines got a grip of themselves.

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