By Joe Brancatelli
April 2, 2008 -- It has become the mantra of 2008: A large airline has a maintenance snafu--either by missing required inspections or fouling up its inspection paperwork--and suddenly there are unexpected cancellations and displaced passengers.

It started last month with Southwest Airlines, which abruptly grounded some of its older Boeing 737s. Then United Airlines had to ground a few planes. Then last week the metaphoric garbage hit the engine fan: American and Delta simultaneously grounded hundreds of their MD-80/MD-88 aircraft. And this week United Airlines was forced to put down its fleet of Boeing 777s. That represents about 11 percent of the airline's entire worldwide jet capacity and the backbone of its international service.

It's anyone's guess which plane, and which carriers, are next.

Given the current standards, I suppose this one could have been worse. United Airlines says that it cancelled 41 of its 84 scheduled Boeing 777 flights on Wednesday (April 2). FlightStats.com says that United cancelled 51 of the 1,515 mainline departures it had tracked so far. There were few reports of stranded travelers, perhaps because about half of the Boeing 777 cancellations occurred overseas and United was required, by law or regulation, to feed and house distressed passengers. But there was one embarrassment: One of the 52 Boeing 777s affected by the grounding was a United aircraft chartered by the White House to carry the press corps to a NATO meeting in Budapest, Hungary. If that flight doesn't depart on schedule on Friday (April 4), I think we'll hear about it.

There's another large, inspection-related grounding, this time by United Airlines.

The airline has pulled its 52-aircraft fleet of Boeing 777s for what it says is a check of a part of the fire-suppression system. United says the "system is regularly tested as part of the pre-flight safety checks," yet admits "the functional test" was not performed.

The airline has not said how many delays and cancellations will be created by the situation. According to FlightStats.com, however, there have already been 38 cancellations today on United's mainline service. The airline has 1,538 scheduled mainline flights today.

The Boeing 777 is primarily used on United's international flights, although it does operate on some domestic routes and some "behind gateway" service that feeds the international flights. The loss of the aircraft is sure to cause disruption at United's Chicago/O'Hare, San Francisco and Washington/Dulles hubs, but the travelers most likely to be seriously inconvenienced are in United's international destinations served by the Boeing 777.

The groundings came without advance notice. United announced the situation this morning at 6:30 a.m. Eastern Time. And the airline DID post a link to a notice on the United.com home page. That's more than either American or Delta did in the early hours of their inspection-related groundings last week.

I don't know how or if United is contacting travelers who are booked on Boeing 777 flights today. Check your itinerary carefully if you are booked on United in the next few days.

You should also expect this situation to cause disruptions for a few days. Since the Boeing 777s ply some of United's longer routes and international service, it may take United several days to get these aircraft back in position. The airline simply does not have available, appropriate aircraft to substitute for the grounded Boeing 777s.
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.

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This column is Copyright 2008 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2008 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.