A series of attention-grabbing safety incidents earlier this year prompted the Federal Aviation Administration to pause United Airlines’ certification activities, preventing it from adding new aircraft and routes. 

Now, the Chicago-based carrier says it has been cleared by the FAA to work toward resuming those activities, touting progress on improving safety across its massive domestic and international networks. 

”Today, we got some good news,” the carrier told employees in a 15 May memo. ”After careful review and discussion about the proactive safety steps United has taken to date, our FAA Certificate Management Office has allowed us to begin restarting our certification activities, including new aircraft and routes, and we will continue to coordinate closely with the FAA.” 

But the FAA says on 16 May that it ”has not approved any expansion of United Airlines’ routes or fleets”. 

“The certificate holder evaluation programme that the FAA is conducting for United is ongoing and safety will determine the timeline for completing it,” adds the civil aviation regulator.

The seemingly differing accounts may have a semantic explanation, as United does not claim to have resumed certification activities, but rather to have begun the process of reviving them. 

United 787

Source: Bradley Caslin/Shutterstock

United says it is beginning to resuscitate the certification activities that were suspended by the FAA in late March 

The FAA suspended some of United’s certification work in late March, responding to several closely timed safety mishaps involving diversions and emergency landings. Among those were a United 737 Max 8 that ran off a taxiway in Houston, an Osaka-bound 777-200 that dropped a tire shortly after take-off at San Francisco International airport and a 737-800 that landed in Medford, Oregon without an external panel.

No injuries were reported as a result of the mishaps, which appeared to have been unrelated events amid tens of thousands of daily US flights that are safely operated. But with safety regulators, lawmakers and the flying public on high alert following the 5 January door plug blow-out on a Boeing 737 Max 9 operated by Alaska Airlines, each incident was met with fierce scrutiny. 

The safety scares also led to soul-searching on United’s part. ”The number of safety-related incidents in recent weeks have caused us to pause and evaluate whether there is anything we can and should do differently,”  Sasha Johnson, United’s vice-president of corporate safety, said in a 22 March memo to employees. “Safety is foundational to the success of the airline and we can never take it for granted.” 

At the time, Johnson said that FAA personnel would be increasingly present at the Chicago-headquartered carrier’s facilities, and that the civil aviation regulator had paused some of United’s certification activities “for a period of time”. 

The FAA’s presence at United’s facilities will continue moving forward, United says. ”There is more work to do, and we remain open to their perspective on things that can make us an even safer airline. That means we will continue to see an FAA presence in our operation as they review our work processes, manuals and facilities.”

United’s first quarter was soured by the Max 9 grounding in the aftermath of Alaska flight 1282, as all 79 of its Max 9 jets were out of service for about a month.