United gets green light to return 52 of its 777s to service

May 17, 2022

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United Airlines just received the news it has been eagerly anticipating: It can start to return its 52 stored Pratt & Whitney-powered Boeing 777s to service.

“Those airplanes are back — certified to fly,” United CEO Scott Kirby said Tuesday morning on CNBC’s “Squawk Box.”

The Chicago-based carrier was forced to ground its Pratt & Whitney-powered 777 fleet in February 2021 after a flight traveling from Denver International Airport (DEN) to Daniel K. Inouye International Airport (HNL) in Honolulu rained engine parts on a suburban Denver neighborhood. No one was injured, and the aircraft involved, registration N772UA, was later repaired.

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The Federal Aviation Administration will require United to perform increased fan blade inspections when the fleet returns to service.

While the lack of capacity from the type’s grounding initially was less of a problem for United, it’s increasingly become a headache as travel has rebounded during the COVID-19 pandemic. For months, United has added flights to its schedule that were to be operated with this fleet, only to remove them because FAA approval was still pending. Earlier this month, the airline suspended seven long-haul routes for June and completely removed an eighth from its summer schedule.

United thanked all the parties involved who worked together to get the aircraft back into service.

“We appreciate the collaboration with the FAA, Boeing and Pratt and Whitney to safely return these aircraft to our fleet,” the airline said in a statement.

The FAA, in its statement confirming the move, said: “The FAA approved the service bulletins that will be used to make the necessary changes outlined in the Airworthiness Directives to the Boeing 777-200 with Pratt & Whitney PW4000 engines.”

United plans to return these 777s to service on a limited basis on May 26, initially operating domestic, hub-to-hub routes, Cirium schedule data shows. It will begin using them for Hawaii service in June, followed by international service.

More: United suspends 7 long-haul routes for June due to aircraft shortage

There are two primary variants of the Pratt & Whitney-powered 777 in United’s fleet: a domestic, high-density variant with 364 seats that is the highest-capacity aircraft in United’s fleet and an international variant that is configured similarly to the airline’s fleet of General Electric-powered 777-200ERs that were unaffected by the grounding. The domestic 777s feature previous-generation lie-flat seats in the pointy end of the plane, while the international 777s feature United’s latest Polaris business class.

While Tuesday’s news is good news for United, it might be bad news for some passengers. Many say that United’s domestic 777s feel cramped, and with those aircraft replacing more comfortable internationally-configured planes on domestic and Hawaii routes, the move could amount to a passenger experience downgrade.

Featured photo by David Paul Morris/Bloomberg/Getty Images.

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