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United Airlines’ 777 service delay affects cargo

Cargo owners will have to wait at least a month longer to access additional airlift through United Airlines because the carrier is postponing the reintroduction of 52 Boeing 777s that were grounded after one suffered an uncontained engine failure a year ago.

United had planned to bring some of the planes back to service this month, but pushed back their return until mid-May, CNBC reported. 

The delay is a setback as the airline gears up for the busy summer season in anticipation that international business will finally experience a strong recovery from the pandemic as many nations relax COVID travel restrictions. It also hinders growth opportunities for the cargo division, which intends to take advantage of the 777’s huge cargo hold to add to its record performance over the past 18 months.

United Airlines pulled in $2.4 billion in cargo revenue last year. 

United (NASDAQ: UAL) has 52 Boeing 777s powered by Pratt & Whitney 4000 engines. United grounded the fleet after a 777-200 had an engine failure that dropped debris after taking off from Denver International Airport in February 2021. The plane returned safely to the airport. Shortly afterward, Boeing and the Federal Aviation Administration recommended not to fly planes with those engines until the problem could be understood.

Last month, the FAA finalized three safety directives that would allow the planes to return to service. The regulations required operators to install debris shields in the thrust reverser’s inner walls, modify the engine inlet to withstand a fan blade failure and conduct enhanced inspections. 

United said in an internal message to pilots that the 777s would be removed from the schedule for Hawaii through May 12 and for international routes through May 25.

The aircraft would be a welcome addition for United’s passenger and cargo business. The air cargo sector is grappling with a capacity deficit of 14% because international passenger capacity is only 40% of precrisis levels. The shortage of cargo space is a key reason freight rates are about 2.5 times higher than 2019 levels and why shippers face difficulties finding transport on short notice. Companies able to book an air cargo slot typically have to wait more than a week before they can tender it to the airline.

The shortage of airfreight capacity has worsened since the Russian invasion of Ukraine because of sanctions that have eliminated Russian cargo airlines from the market and the closure of Russian airspace, which has required aircraft to make lengthy detours between Europe and Asia. 

More FreightWaves/American Shipper stories by Eric Kulisch.

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