Home >News >World >Boeing’s 777 problem is no max

The latest grounding of Boeing planes isn’t the start of another 737 MAX debacle. But it is more unwelcome publicity for an already battered U.S. aerospace industry.

On Sunday, airlines around the world followed Boeing’s recommendation and stopped flying all 777 jets with engines manufactured by Pratt & Whitney, a division of U.S. conglomerate Raytheon. This followed problems on a United Airlines flight Saturday that scattered engine debris over a Denver suburb. The Federal Aviation Administration will order inspections of all the affected aircraft, given the precedent of a similar incident in 2018.

While the extent of the problem is still unclear, it is likely to affect only a subset of a small subset of the global fleet.

Pratt is one of three companies to have made turbofan engines for the jet since it started flying in 1994. According to data provider Cirium, only 8.3% of all 777s in operation use the PW4000 engines in question, with another 12% sporting Rolls-Royce equivalents. The rest are serviced by General Electric, which has been the exclusive supplier of all the longer-range 777 variants that Boeing has produced since the mid-2000s.

United is the top user of Pratt-powered 777s—and the only one in the U.S.—followed by Japanese carriers ANA and Japan Airlines, as well as Korean Air and Asiana Airlines. Yet the immediate logistical challenges for airlines may be limited. The affected 777s are the kind of big, old jets that airlines have kept in storage during the Covid-19 crisis. Out of 127 in operation, according to Cirium, 67 were already parked.

A preliminary examination by the National Transportation Safety Board showed that two fan blades in the engine were fractured during Saturday’s scare. That is reminiscent of what happened in February 2018, when a fan blade broke on another United flight. Both cases involved the same sub-model of Pratt’s 777 engines, the PW4077, found only on the old 777-200 variants of the aircraft. Just 24 planes currently use them.

Boeing has recently been besieged by a myriad of problems involving the grounding of the 737 MAX, the delay of the 777X and quality problems with the 787 Dreamliner. This is a far less concerning situation, and it is still unclear where the burden of responsibility will fall.

The risk is probably greater for Raytheon. After the 2018 incident, regulators were openly critical of the training received by Pratt’s inspectors. Pratt said in a statement Sunday that it is conducting more inspections in collaboration with investigators and airlines.

The aerospace industry has been saddled with many other engine issues in recent years, albeit less dangerous ones. They include Pratt’s teething problems with its new geared turbofans, and Rolls’ durability issues with the engines that power part of the 787 fleet.

Grounding a few 25-year-old 777 planes during a pandemic isn’t a big deal. For investors, though, the run of bad headlines involving aviation may be starting to wear thin.

(This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.)

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