A Boeing 777 reaches the end of a production line at the company's facility in Everett, Washington. Picture: BLOOMBERG
A Boeing 777 reaches the end of a production line at the company's facility in Everett, Washington. Picture: BLOOMBERG

Washington — Boeing has recommended suspending the use of 777 jets with the same type of engine that shed debris over Denver at the weekend after US regulators announced extra inspections and Japan suspended their use while considering further action.

The moves involving Pratt & Whitney (P&W) 4000 engines came after a United Airlines 777 landed safely at Denver International Airport on Saturday local time after its right engine failed.

United said the next day it would voluntarily and temporarily remove its 24 active aircraft, hours before Boeing’s announcement.

Boeing said 69 of the aircraft are in service and 59 are in storage, while airlines have grounded aircraft due to a plunge in demand associated with the Covid-19 pandemic.

The manufacturer recommended airlines suspend operations until US regulators identify the appropriate inspection protocol.

The 777-200s and 777-300s affected are older and less fuel efficient than newer models and most operators are phasing them out of their fleets.

Images posted by police in Broomfield, Colorado show significant aircraft debris on the ground, including an engine cowling scattered outside a home.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said its initial examination of the aircraft indicates most of the damage was confined to the right engine, with only minor damage to the aeroplane.

Additional measures

It said the inlet and casing separated from the engine and two fan blades were fractured, while the remainder of the fan blades exhibited damage.

Japan’s transport ministry ordered Japan Airlines and ANA Holdings to suspend the use of 777s with P &W 4000 engines while it considers whether to take additional measures.

The ministry said that on December 4, 2020, a JAL flight from Naha Airport to Tokyo International Airport returned to the airport due to a malfunction in the left engine about 100km north of Naha Airport.

That aircraft was the same age as the 26-year-old United Airlines plane involved in the latest incident.

United is the only US operator of the planes, according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The other airlines using them are in Japan and South Korea, the US agency said.

“We reviewed all available safety data,” the FAA said in a statement. “Based on the initial information, we concluded that the inspection interval should be stepped up for the hollow fan blades that are unique to this model of engine, used solely on Boeing 777 aeroplanes.”

Japan said ANA operates 19 of the type and JAL operates 13 of them, though the airlines said their use have been reduced during the pandemic. JAL said its fleet is due for retirement by March 2022.

Pratt & Whitney, owned by Raytheon Technologies, said it is co-ordinating with operators and regulators to support a revised inspection interval for the engines.

A spokesperson for South Korea’s transport ministry, speaking before Boeing recommended suspending operations, said it is monitoring the situation but has not yet taken any action.

Korean Air Lines said it has 16 of the planes, 10 of them stored, and it will consult with the manufacturer and regulators and stop flying them to Japan for now.

In February 2018, a 777 of the same age operated by United and bound for Honolulu suffered an engine failure when a cowling fell off about 30 minutes before the plane landed safely. The NTSB determined that incident was the result of a full-length fan blade fracture.

Because of that 2018 incident, Pratt & Whitney reviewed inspection records for all previously inspected PW4000 fan blades, the NTSB said. The FAA in March 2019 issued a directive requiring initial and recurring inspections of the fan blades on the PW4000 engines.


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