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8 incidents in 2 weeks: what is happening with United planes?

An engine fire triggered by plastic packagingA lost tire shortly after takeoff and a plane get off the track: These are among eight incidents that occurred in the past two weeks on flights operated by United Airlines. Although no injuries — or worse — were reported, the crashes made headlines and stoked growing anxiety about aviation safety among federal officials and passengers.

All of the incidents occurred in the United States and five involved planes made by Boeing, a manufacturer already under close scrutiny. In January, a door plug exploded on an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 Max 9 jetliner in mid-flight, forcing the plane to make an emergency landing.

United, one of the largest airlines in the world, flies aircraft manufactured mainly by Boeing and Airbus. In an email that United began sending to customers Monday, the company's chief executive, Scott Kirby, wrote that while the recent incidents were unrelated, they were “a reminder of the importance of safety “.

“I want you to know that these incidents have our attention and have sharpened our focus,” he continued, adding that each case was reviewed by the airline and would influence its training and safety procedures.

Here's what travelers should know about the latest plane issues.

Most incidents reported over the past two weeks have required emergency landings or diversions.

These incidents are not the result of “systemic problems,” said Robert Sumwalt, former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, now head of a new aviation safety center at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

“Some of these issues arise occasionally, but are often not reported in the media,” Mr. Sumwalt said, while emphasizing that none of them were acceptable.

Kyra Dempsey, who writes about air accidents on a blog called Admiral Cloudberg, said United's recent problems were “falsely conflated with Boeing's problems.”

“While it is unfortunate that United has experienced so many incidents in such a short period of time, in general such incidents occur frequently around the world and are not increasing overall,” Ms. Dempsey said.

Mr. Kirby's 270-word message to United customers, including members of the airline's frequent flyer program, began going out Monday morning, said Josh Freed, a United spokesman.

Starting in May, United pilots will receive an additional day of in-person training, a change that was already planned before the incidents, Mr. Kirby wrote. The airline will also use a “centralized training program for our new maintenance technicians” and dedicate additional resources to the carrier's supply chain.

The Federal Aviation Administration regulates the country's aviation system and investigates safety incidents that occur on U.S. airlines, while the NTSB investigates the causes of crashes, collisions and mishaps involving aircraft flown by U.S. carriers, in plus other accidents involving commercial and transit operators. Both agencies have discretion over what they investigate, Mr. Sumwalt said.

Currently, the NTSB is investigating the March 8 incident in Houston, when the plane left the runway, an agency spokesperson said. The NTSB is also investigating a case on February 10. Flight Los Angeles-Newark, operated by United, which experienced severe turbulence, resulting in injuries to more than a dozen passengers. (The Boeing 777 landed normally, but the flight was greeted by medical personnel.)

Security experts said some issues don't necessarily rise to the level of an investigation by either agency.

For example, partial loss of some of an airplane's multiple hydraulic systems is common, said Michael McCormick, an assistant professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and a former FAA control tower operator. The FAA may or may not get involved in this kind of problem unless there is a trend, Mr. Sumwalt said.

The January episode involving the blown door plug aboard the Alaska Airlines jet is being investigated by the NTSB and the Justice Department.


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