United's 757 Grounding: What It Really Says About Airline Safety

Last Updated Feb 17, 2011 1:49 PM EST

Earlier this week, United (UAL) grounded its fleet of 757s after discovering it had failed to check onboard computers after completing maintenance work. The work was done and the fleet is back in the air now, and while some critics remain concerned about the maintenance failure, the real story here is the strength of the safety culture in the airline industry.

The problem actually dates back to 2004. In June of that year, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) required 757 aircraft operators to replace the computers that measure atmospheric conditions. Those conditions are used to calculate airspeed, and accurate airspeed calculation is essential for safety reasons. After the computers were replaced, the airlines were required to have a mechanic perform a check on the computers to ensure that they worked. United apparently skipped that last step.

Sloppy maintenance -- but good self-reporting
This certainly does bring up questions about sloppy maintenance practices back when the work was done, but the more interesting story in my mind is around the safety reporting culture that has grown around this industry.

United wasn't caught by the FAA or any other group. It discovered the problem itself. Here we are, five years after the directive was issued, and no problems with airspeed measurement had been experience by the airline. In many industries, this might be something that you just chalk up to being a mistake and perform the checks over time when airplanes have a free moment. After all, they had been flying for a long time without any problems.

But when it comes to air travel, there is no gray area. United reported the problem to the FAA and grounded its fleet of 757s until the roughly one-hour checks could be performed. With around 100 airplanes needing the checks, that meant a lot of canceled flights and inconvenienced passengers. It also cost the airline a lot of money.

The fact that airlines report freely like this is an incredibly important piece of our national aviation system and it's one reason why air travel is such a safe endeavor. Other industries with great safety concerns could stand to benefit from creating a safety culture like this.


Photo via Flickr user Alaskan Dude/CC 2.0