FAA Clears Return To Service For 52 United 777-200s

United Airlines Boeing 777
Credit: United Airlines

The FAA has issued final paperwork clearing the return to service of 52 Pratt & Whitney-powered Boeing 777-200s operated by United Airlines, ending a grounding that has constrained the carrier’s widebody capacity over the last fifteen months.

The FAA’s grounding of the worldwide PW4000-powered 777 fleet went into effect in February 2021, following a series of engine fan blade out events—two involving United 777-200s in February 2018 and February 2021 and one on a Japan Airlines 777-200 in December 2020. 

In its latest service bulletin issued May 17, FAA proposed changes including mandating blade inspections, nacelle inlet modifications and changes to thrust reverser components—steps that were previously outlined in an airworthiness directive issued in March.

Prior to the grounding, the global PW4000-powered 777 fleet totaled about 130 aircraft, including United’s 52. The U.S. carrier plans to work them back into its network, while several other operators, including Japan Airlines, have accelerated plans to retire their aircraft. Cargo and charter specialist Eastern Airlines has purchased some during the model’s grounding—the only other U.S. carrier with Pratt-powered 777s in its fleet.

“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,” an FAA spokeswoman said in a statement.

Speaking on an investor webcast hosted by Bank of America on May 17, United Chief Commercial Officer Andrew Nocella said that the airline could have its first 777-200s back in service “within the next week” on an ad hoc basis, although the first flights are not officially scheduled until May 26. The company will add back the 777s at a “gradual” pace, with plans to have around 30-35 aircraft back in the schedule by July, and the remainder by the end of 2022. 

Nocella said the 52 777-200s amount to around 10% of United’s system capacity, which he called “really material” to the airline’s long-haul business, particularly in light of continued 787 delivery delays. Nocella also said that the “efficient capacity” of the 777-200 would help United restart business to international markets that are just now opening up, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region. 

“The 777s will help everything,” Nocella said. 

United has invested heavily into retrofitting its widebody fleet, including the 777-200s, with its premium-heavy Polaris configuration.

Ben Goldstein

Based in Washington, Ben covers Congress, regulatory agencies, the Departments of Justice and Transportation and lobby groups.