United Unhappy With 777 -- Reliability A `Major Disappointment'

United Airlines has warned The Boeing Co. that the reliability of the jet-maker's new 777 airliner is "a major disappointment," in part because of mechanical problems that have disrupted departures twice as often as the carrier had expected.

The warning is contained in a Feb. 13 letter to Boeing's manager in charge of the new 300-seat 777 jetliner, Ron Ostrowski, from Joseph O'Gorman, executive vice president of fleet operations for United.

In the letter, whose contents were confirmed by both companies, United used stinging language to describe its frustration with the performance of the 10 777s the carrier has received. O'Gorman wrote that he is "very concerned" about problems he describes as "significant." He also characterized as "intolerable" the number of flight cancellations, the "airplane out-of-service time," and the volumes of reports of problems from pilots.

A United spokesman said O'Gorman wasn't available to be interviewed, but the spokesman said the issues involved and the communication about them were "routine."

Ostrowski said the letter is "a very accurate documentation of the issues we've had with United." However, he said, at the time the letter was written Boeing and United were already working jointly on solutions to all 12 problems referred to by O'Gorman, and the letter was merely to ensure they sized up their effort the same way. In essence, said Ostrowski, the concerns and the letter are "business as usual."

Disruptions troublesome

United's focus on the problems isn't surprising. Unexpected or unusually frequent service disruptions for the 300-seat 777 are particularly troublesome for both Boeing and United. The airline was the first to take delivery of the jet last summer, and United has received more of the planes so far than any other carrier.

In all, Boeing has delivered 17 of the first version of 777s to five carriers: United, British Airways, All Nippon Airways, China Southern Airlines and Japan Airlines.

As the showpiece of United's fleet, the 777 is deployed in the airline's high-priority, strategic markets. Just last weekend, for instance, United pointed its first 777 into Latin America, a huge international market where the carrier distantly trails archrival American Airlines. In announcing the Miami-Sao Paulo, Brazil, flights, Maria Sastre, United's vice president in the region, said, "The 777 is a critical part of United's plan to become the airline of choice in Latin America."

What's more, United uses the state-of-the-art plane, which features individual TV monitors right at the armrest, to wow high-fare business travelers on lucrative transcontinental flights. As a result, any 777 flight delays or cancellations are highly visible to discriminating business travelers, and wind up irritating some of the airline's most coveted clientele.

Boeing managers say a range of problems has caused a surge in the frequency of problems disrupting timely dispatch of the United planes, from electrical malfunctions and freezing of cabling, to parts damaged from heat in unexpected parts of the 777s.

Boeing's Ostrowski said the so-called "pilot write-ups" cited in O'Gorman's letter refer to messages the pilots get from a central maintenance computer informing them that parts are malfunctioning. Often, he said, a typical box of electrical, computing or switching equipment will need to be replaced, "and in the meantime, you get a dispatch delay."

Boeing officials and the United spokesman said none of the problems encountered in the United fleet of 777s are chronic and stressed that none pose safety problems.

Ostrowski said one complication for Boeing is that the company has raised expectations for immediate reliability of a new airplane "higher than ever before" because the company heavily promoted the unusually intensive advance testing that Boeing and 777 buyers have performed on the plane.

Officials of both United and Boeing, as well as British Airways, have said that effort has meant a smoother service introduction than on previous Boeing introductions of new jets, such as the 747 jumbo jet or the midsize twin-engine 767.

Problems double the expected

O'Gorman's letter says reliability problems stemming from mechanical malfunctions are running "approximately double what we expected" during the past two months. Ostrowski said one possible explanation is that United had expected a faster rate of improvement in dispatch reliability than it got. He added that Boeing has targeted a 98 percent rate of reliability for dispatching the planes, and the 777s produced by the end of 1995 had achieved a 97.5 percent rate.

While some problems relate to the aircraft, "There's been a learning curve" at United as it manages a quickly expanding fleet of new planes, Ostrowski added. He also said Boeing is "not disappointed in the airplane in general. United had some specific problems. They had a tough winter season this year in terms of weather." In addition to the 10 planes received, United has another 24 on order.

The United spokesman said the carrier is "very pleased with the airplane."

He said the letter was sent "to document our problems and get their attention" and he added that "the types of problems we have seen are glitches that delay flights."

The spokesman declined to detail the problems, but confirmed that some relate to computer-software bugs and others relate to a lengthy strike by union machinists at Boeing late last year.

Since they began flying the plane last June, United pilots have made five unscheduled landings, according to reports filed with the Federal Aviation Administration. One last July involved a landing gear door that wouldn't close, while others involved an unusual oil loss, a damaged circuit breaker and fluid that leaked into an auxiliary power generator.

Reprinted with permission of The Wall Street Journal, copyright 1996 Dow Jones & Co. Inc. All rights reserved.