United Airlines ‘Problem’ 767 Engine Fire On Takeoff In Houston

Every airline has a cursed plane that consistently has more problems than the rest. At American Airlines there’s the roach coach. At United Airlines one of these seems to be Boeing 767-300 registration N641UA.

Aviation watchdog JonNYC points out that this aircraft keeps having problems. Just last month the plane diverted to Newark. The same 32-year old aircraft had a gear problem on arrival in Chicago from London and a fuel imbalance reported over the Atlantic that caused a diversion to Iceland.

Last night’s United flight 129 from Houston to Rio on this aircraft has been rescheduled for this morning after a harrowing first attempt.

According to JonNYC even the aircraft’s return to Houston wasn’t without incident.

A passenger on the aircraft shares video of the response on the ground.

Thank God, we just went through a horror movie inside the flight #UA129 Huston to GIG. Where the plane’s turbine caught fire in the first few seconds of takeoff, a lot of panic, people screaming fire. We had a hard landing and firefighters cooling the aircraft.

And here’s air traffic control speaking with the cockpit.

The good news for passengers is that when they make the next attempt to reach Brazil this morning it won’t be on board N641UA.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Every airline has a hangar queen or two and United will either get the problems w/ this plane figured out or retire it – the economics of continuing to repair planes that are continuously out of service are not favorable.

    United’s bigger problem w/ its 767-300ER fleet is that they have chosen to use it in a premium configuration which makes the seat costs very high. While the justification is that the plane serves premium heavy routes, the reality is that no route consistently generates revenue to fill the premium seats and still cover the high costs of the airplane on a per seat basis.

    If UA wants a premium configuration, it makes more sense to use a larger aircraft such as the 767-400 or the 787 where there are more coach seats to help bring per seat costs back down.

    Add in the higher costs of new labor costs (UA just reached agreements w/ multiple ground worker groups) and the economics of premium configured or niche fleets will become less favorable.

    United will use a larger and larger percentage of its 787 order for fleet replacement than a lot of people think which means their international growth will not be near as robust as some think.

  2. So there was probably a compressor stall, they shut down the engine and landed safely.

    People have always wanted to be the dramatic stars of their own lives, but social media has certainly exacerbated that phenomenon.

  3. @ Tim Dunn , either back up your last paragraph with facts, factual information and official corporate communication or just simply and plainly shut up. You’re entitled to your own ridiculous opinions, but not your own facts! Not only are you lying through your teeth open wise, but your contempt and envy for United shows. Let me just remind you that your dear Delta is the one on the hook with 66 types of this garbage and DL, not United, is the one stuck with them with no official announcements made on their replacement, let alone growth, lol!!!!

  4. GPG,
    you came out hot and swinging and are clearly being driven by emotion and not facts.

    So when did the 767 become a “type of garbage?” perhaps when United can’t keep them running efficiently?
    Every airline has more costly aircraft to maintain but different airlines also have different levels of ability to keep older aircraft in service.
    American clearly did not maintain its 767s for more than just keeping them airworthy and then came to the conclusion that the fleet wasn’t worth keeping – and so they now spend as much per seat mile including ownership costs on new 787-8s as DL and UA spend on the 767s including maintenance costs.

    I do not know the fleet reliability of DL or UA’s 767s but there are more and more cases of United 767s – esp. -300ERs – that are grounded or are seeing cancelled flights – moreso than for Delta. And both airlines have comparably aged fleets for each of their -300ERs and -400s.

    Delta has more than 2 dozen new A330-900s and 350-900s coming into the fleet over the next 2 years alone while United has a fraction of that number. Delta does have the new aircraft coming to retire older aircraft if it needed to – but it clearly still is able to keep its 767 fleet operating.

    Delta retired about 30 widebodies during the pandemic including a dozen or so 767-300ERs while United touted that it didn’t retire any aircraft. It doesn’t take a “rocket surgeon” to realize that it is United – not Delta – that is more pressed to replace older aircraft than Delta.

    And Soctt Kirby himself said that the 787 order was in part to start replacing the 767 fleet. Delta and United will likely both start replacing the remainder of their 767-300ERs in the 2026-2030 timeframe with United doing the 767-400s later this decade and Delta might drag it out into the early 2030s.

    Since United’s 787 order won’t start coming in significantly until after 2025, there might be alot more of these types of stories of hangar queens.

    My facts are a whole lot more solid than you want to admit. United is going to significantly have to engage in fleet replacement.

    And Delta is still working on a new widebody order that was previously seen to be a shoe-in for the A350-1000 and likely more A330-900s but Boeing is apparently trying hard to get back into supplying widebodies to Delta and is actively pitching the 787 and 777X. Delta is taking a hard look.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if we see a new order from Delta announced during earnings season which starts in a couple weeks.
    And, if so, Delta will have the ability to start replacing 767s later this decade just as United is doing w/ part of its 767 order.
    The difference between DL and UA’s orders is that DL is apparently committed to going w/ a new generation large widebody – either the 777X or 350-1000 – which will further increase their lower aircraft costs per seat mile advantage that currently exists over AA and UA>

  5. @ Dunn, stop deflecting and stay on point, and please, don’t ever question my emotions or reactions to your diatribe of lies, don’t you dare. Again, again you are lying here or doling out alternative facts. Just like I thought, you have no proof or solid facts on anything you’ve said and it’s just your usual, one sided nonsense about DL being awesome and UA trash, you couldn’t even justify or proof with any facts the last paragraph on your previous post. I’m not going to waste my valuable time arguing with a sycophantic dl cheerleader. You’re just full of hot air.

  6. GPG,
    your own response proves that you responded emotionally and without the facts and data which you say you want me to produce – and then refuse to accept even where UA execs have spoken.

    I never said that UA is trash or that DL is awesome but the facts speak for themselves.

    The reality is that United has made a number of fleet decisions that are proving very costly to fix and which cost UA dearly right now
    – UA specifically made the decision to not retire widebody aircraft during the pandemic while AA and DL both did; UA now has the least fuel efficient and oldest widebody fleet among the big 3.
    – UA tried but failed to acquire a refinery like Delta did and UA pays the highest cost per gallon for jet fuel among the big 4
    The result of these two is that UA has the costs per seat mile for its international network of the big 3 and that is particularly true from the NE to Europe.

    United failed to buy anywhere near the number of new narrowbody aircraft compared to AA DL or WN and now has the oldest domestic fleet among US airlines – also requiring substantial expense to replace.
    Add in that UA has had the largest 50 seat regional jet fleet for years, costs to produce seats on that fleet type are skyrocketing, and UA is having to spend massively on domestic fleet replacement and upgauging – something that AA and DL have both done to a much greater degree.

    In contrast, AA has spent massively on domestic fleet renewal and has a pretty efficient mainline domestic fleet even if it also has a lot of RJs – but a higher percentage of large RJs than UA; DL if on the verge of having no 50 seat RJs in a couple months.
    AA’s international fleet is half renewed but isn’t growing while they try to figure out their strategies and have new planes available to execute their strategies.

    On the other end of UA is DL which has never stopped taking delivery of new aircraft – domestic and international – but sacrificed growth during the pandemic recovery to get rid of older, less efficient aircraft.
    DL has already replaced all of the widebody aircraft it retired and is now returning to growth mode on its international network with the delivery of 16 new A350-900s, induction of six used A350-900s that weren’t already flying, and the last 18 of its current A330NEO order book. DL has ALOT of new generation widebody capacity coming online in the next 3 years – the most of the big 3 – and that is before DL orders any new generation large twins. In fact, DL has the equivalent of 40% of UA’s entire 100 aircraft 787 order to be delivered over the next 3 years – most of it in the next 2 years.

    UA isn’t trash but they are correcting huge decisions including about their fleet and trying to tout them as earth-shattering when in reality they are simply catching up w/ what AA and DL have done.
    International growth makes sense right now and DL has the new generation aircraft coming online. UA has arrogantly touted itself as the US’ flag carrier even though there is no such designation in reality and DL will grow and add capacity as much as or more than UA as long as the market remains favorable.

    Given that UA execs make statements about UA’s own superiority instead of admitting that they are correcting UA’s own strategic mistakes, it isn’t surprised that you are as sensitive about real world facts and data.
    UA is a good airline but they toot their own horn way too much about stuff that other airlines figured out and started addressing years ago.

  7. Jeeze, Gravely Point Guy… your moniker suggests that you live in DC or nearby. Somehow, I think Tim Dunne and I know more about airline business than you. You need to take a powder and calm down…and get your facts a bit straighter! I don’t think that Dunne favors one airline over the other. The facts actually speak for themselves. With the Mad Dog’s gone and the 717’s slooooowwwwlllly being fazed out and the A220 fleet growing like crazy, Delta’s short haul routes will continue to make money. The A220 with its long legs and low fuel burn will make less profitable routes due to low demand…profitable. Many of the major airlines are falling by the wayside as Delta “Keep’s Climbing”. Meanwhile, with new long haul aircraft coming in, the 767’s (which are NOT TRASH) will be retired as needed. New interiors have been installed and I noted that I rode on a 757-300 (how old it THAT jet??) recently and it was a wonderful ride, brand new interior and clean as a whistle inside and out.

  8. Win,
    just to note that Delta is un-retiring the 717s it previously retired, is planning for a fleet of about 80 (out of the 91 or so it flew pre-covid), and acquired a bunch of used “donor” aircraft that will ensure Delta has parts for the 717s to keep operating likely through this decade.

    Compared to regional jets and the labor costs that are necessary to keep them going, the 717 makes sense.

    The A220 is best suited for flights that are longer than the 717- DL has used the A220 on flights transcon flights such as SEA-IAD – while the 717 is best suited as a short haul mainline feeder esp. in ATL and DTW.

    overall your point is correct. For decades, Delta has managed its fleet w/ an eye on the long term and has figured out how to profitably operate older aircraft (DL execs often said that the MD80 was the most profitable fleet type because it was so good at 2-3 hops up and down the east coast) as well as keep a steady supply of new generation aircraft.
    Given that Delta is spending 1/3 of what United is spending on new aircraft over the next decade but will have similar if not higher growth capacity domestically and internationally esp. if it orders the A350-1000 or B777X.

    Delta’s higher level of profitability will ensure it is able to take advantage of whatever opportunities become available.

  9. I never figured out why MD called the VNAV button “PROF” when its cousin, the Mad Dog and every other jet I know has VNAV! I will say that the 717 is quiet and putts right along. Since DL got such a good deal on the 717s and like the MD88/90, the higher operating costs were offset by the lower cost of the aircraft. As the Mad Dogs aged, older aircraft were “sacrificed” for parts to keep the newer ones flying. All things considered and as quirky as the Mad Dog is, they served their purpose well. I am very familiar with the A220 and consider it the best jet I’ve encountered. With almost the same amount of fuel load as the Mad Dog, as you point out, the little bugger is transcontinental. It can serve low density routes with efficiency that makes it very economical to operate at a profitable margin. The -300, though certified by Bombardier ETOPS, DL hasn’t used that capacity. That model can easily fly NYC – LHR. Since the type rating is BD-500, that leaves the door open for a yet larger A220. If that should occur, I trust that Airbus won’t make the same mistake with the -500 that Boeing did with the 737-900 which is a dog. Boeing could sell a “757-Neo” like hotcakes but they’re too damned stubborn to see the handwriting on the wall. McDonnell-Douglas mentality management! I have flown on the VS A350-1000 and it is a keeper! Maybe DL will consider it in lieu of some of the -900s on order.

  10. Rather than derail the conversation about United’s operational problems w/ at least one 767, I think it is fair to say that Delta has long been an opportunistic buyer of aircraft from as many suppliers as makes sense – which allows them to negotiate better deals than other airlines like American, United or Southwest that have shown strong loyalty to one manufacturer.
    Delta has proven that it can operate a very diverse fleet based on different aircraft sizes, manufacturers, capabilities and ages – and make them all work based on good management of labor, fuel and maintenance costs.
    The reason why the 717 is coming back instead of continuing out the door is because the 717, while less efficient from a fuel standpoint than other narrowbodies, has favorable labor economics.

    It is because of Delta’s opportunistic buying that they will at least give Airbus a run for their money if DL sticks w/ the A330NEO and adds the A350-1000 but might also find an opportunity to pick up the 777X and perhaps the 787-10 and perhaps -8; Boeing is the underdog now as the 777X is not selling terribly well, is surrounded by delays, and there are no customers for the 777X in the Americas.

    United, in contrast, ordered nearly a decades worth of 787s and hundreds of 737MAXs in 3 massive orders; both were probably reduced in costs because of credits United received for delivery delays but I doubt if Boeing had great incentive to negotiate for the order given that UAL indicated that the orders were Boeing’s to lose.

    The A330NEO and A350 are great planes but I’d be happy to see Delta start placing some large orders w/ Boeing again. It doesn’t hurt that American and United have largely decided their fleet plans so Delta is in a position to not only gain an advantage cost-wise but also enhance their revenue generating position.

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