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USA Today reports that United grounded 96 Boeing 757 aircraft yesterday after realizing critical upgrades to onboard computer systems had not been properly inspected. The grounding affects the airline’s entire fleet of 757s.
According to USA Today, “The problem occurred on the 757’s air data computer, which measures air pressure and other atmospheric conditions to determine speed and altitude. The Federal Aviation Administration on June 22, 2004, ordered that the computers be replaced and that mechanics perform a check to ensure they were working properly.” United hadn’t performed this check.
The safety check only takes about an hour, so the planes should be fully inspected shortly, minimizing delays and cancellations. The 757s are primarily used on long-haul domestic routes.
Once United completes the checks and returns its 757s to the air, two large questions will remain: How did United fail to perform these checks in the first place, and will the government fine the airline for the lapse? On the first question, your guess is as good as mine.
On the second question, one has to assume that yes, United will face some kind of disciplinary action. These computers, which help determine how fast the aircraft is traveling, are crucial to proper operation of the plane. The FAA has a program in place that allows airlines to self-report errors, as United has done here, without fear of punishment. But considering the apparent gravity of the error, it strikes me as unlikely United will escape a penalty.
Readers, do you think there should be a zero-tolerance policy for these kinds of safety lapses? Or should regulators give airlines a pass when they voluntarily reveal and publicly fix mistakes?