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Can United Still Certify Pilots and Aircraft?

Despite murmurings of a complete pause to certification activities, the FAA has yet to provide official guidance.

A united 737 MAX 8 (Photo: AirlineGeeks | William Derrickson)

Over the weekend, numerous reports surfaced about United’s ability (or lack thereof) to certify new pilots, aircraft, and launch routes following heightened scrutiny by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Many of these rumors seemingly stemmed from a letter sent by the local Air Lines Pilots Association (ALPA) council at the airline’s Orlando crew base.

Making its way onto forums and blogs, the letter stated, “We have lost the ability to approve new Line Check Pilots, issue type ratings, and have regulator-imposed restrictions on our ability to operate and grow our airline.”

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At the time, neither ALPA’s national council, United itself, nor the FAA confirmed anything to this degree, with the agency stating only that the carrier would face “increasing oversight.” In a letter to employees late last week, United’s Vice President of Corporate Safety Sasha Johnson shared that the FAA will increase its presence at the airline.

Johnson added that the FAA will pause a “variety of certification activities for a period of time.” These certification slowdowns will vary by workgroup with additional detail coming from the FAA “soon,” she noted.

The letter did not affirm whether United would be unable to certify some pilots or new aircraft. In fact, a new United 737 MAX 8 – registered as N17339 – entered revenue service on Saturday, March 23, according to Flightradar24 tracking data.

ALPA’s Latest Letter

In a course reversal, ALPA’s United Master Executive Council (MEC) – which represents the carrier’s 17,000 pilots – issued a new letter, stating that “The FAA has yet to issue final guidance over the weekend.”

The MEC seemed to acknowledge that some verbiage in the local Orlando council’s early letter was inaccurate. “Some members of the FAA, United, and ALPA published information before verifying its credibility and factual basis,” the MEC said on Monday.

“United will still train, issue type rides, and conduct normal business,” ALPA continued in the letter. The pilots union noted that the airline will undergo an FAA audit called a Certification Holder and Evaluation Program (CHEP) in which the agency embeds inspectors into an air carrier’s daily operations to review “all facets.”

According to the union, these audits aren’t particularly uncommon. United’s last one was in 2018 and the FAA says they are conducted roughly every five years at part 121 air carriers.

In a statement to FLYING Magazine, the FAA noted that “certification activities in process may be allowed to continue, but future projects may be delayed based on findings from oversight. The FAA will also initiate an evaluation of United Airlines under the provisions of the Certificate Holder Evaluation Process.”

Why All the Commotion

All of this follows a string of headline-making incidents involving United aircraft. Over the last several weeks, a United 777-200 lost a wheel on departure, a panel dropped from a 737-800, and a 777-300ER suffered a hydraulic leak on departure from Sydney, just to name a few.

These incidents turned heads in the media, but there’s no evidence to suggest they are linked. United CEO Scott Kirby acknowledged the slew of incidents in a message to customers on Mar. 18.

“Unfortunately, in the past few weeks, our airline has experienced a number of incidents that are reminders of the importance of safety. While they are all unrelated, I want you to know that these incidents have our attention and have sharpened our focus,” Kirby said. After all of this, the FAA has also taken notice with its increased oversight of the Chicago-based airline.

What’s the Impact

Echoing the MEC’s letter, the FAA has yet to determine the next steps, if any, regarding United’s in-house certification abilities. Beyond broad statements of slowdowns and project delays, it is more likely the agency will decide as the audit is conducted.

In what would perhaps be the worst-case scenario, if United were to face restrictions on certification activities, it could severely hamper the airline’s growth plans. Even with Boeing’s ongoing delivery delays, the carrier still expects to take delivery of 88 aircraft in 2024. This summer, United also plans to operate its largest-ever transatlantic schedule.

Lastly comes the issue of certifying pilots. At part 121 air carriers, pilot training is designed in a hierarchy structure. The carrier can appoint check airmen to sign off on type ratings and other certifications similar to an FAA Designated Pilot Examiner (DPE).

The agency simply lacks the resources to preside over the thousands of monthly training events at major airlines, so it relies on an established certification process with the carrier. There are a wide variety of reasons a check airman is used whether it be to grade a new hire, certifying a pilot on certain routes, such as those that cross the Atlantic or Pacific, and many more.

If an airline is unable to add new check airmen, that creates a trickle-down effect throughout the entire pilot training process.

Ryan Ewing
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  • Ryan Ewing

    Ryan founded AirlineGeeks.com back in February 2013 and has amassed considerable experience in the aviation sector. His work has been featured in several publications and news outlets, including CNN, WJLA, CNET, and Business Insider. During his time in the industry, he's worked in roles pertaining to airport/airline operations while holding a B.S. in Air Transportation Management from Arizona State University along with an MBA. Ryan has experience in several facets of the industry from behind the yoke of a Cessna 172 to interviewing airline industry executives. Ryan works for AirlineGeeks' owner FLYING Media, spearheading coverage in the commercial aviation space.

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