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Don’t panic about stuff falling off United planes at SFO, experts say

A plane hovers above an airport runway.
Experts say a series of recent aircraft incidents with United flights at SFO may be coincidental and that air travel is still extremely safe. | Source: Yichuan Cao/NurPhoto/Getty Images

A hydraulic leak, a missing panel, a tire falling off a plane. A series of recent incidents involving United Airlines flights departing from or arriving at San Francisco International Airport has raised concerns about flying, but aviation experts cautioned that the cluster may be coincidences and that air travel is still extremely safe.

Two experts told The Standard on Tuesday that they saw no concerning pattern for would-be flyers at the Bay Area’s busiest airport, saying it was a matter of chance that the incidents happened so close together.

“It is perhaps coincidental that a number of them have, you know, been in and around San Francisco,” aviation expert Kit Darby said. “But the fact is that driving yourself to the airport flight is 20 times more dangerous than getting on that airplane.”

On March 11, a United Boeing 777 headed to San Francisco from Sydney had to return to Australia due to a hydraulic leak. Four days later, on March 15, a United 737 from San Francisco was found to have a missing panel after landing in Medford, Oregon.

Then on Monday afternoon, a United Boeing 777-200 heading to Osaka, Japan, received an engine start alert while taxiing at midday on a San Francisco runway and, after an hour, returned to the gate before departing shortly before 5 p.m.

The Federal Aviation Administration is investigating several other incidents involving planes that departed from or landed in San Francisco this month, including:

• March 7: A United Boeing 777 traveling from San Francisco to Osaka landed safely in Los Angeles after losing a tire on takeoff.

• March 8: A United A320 traveling from San Francisco to Mexico City was diverted to Los Angeles due to a hydraulics problem.

• March 14: A United Airbus A320 from Dallas reported a possible hydraulic issue on landing in San Francisco.

The FAA is also looking into issues with aircraft on recent United flights to and from Houston, Chicago and Newark, New Jersey.

In an email to customers Monday, United CEO Scott Kirby acknowledged that the airline has “experienced a number of incidents” in recent weeks, saying the issues were good “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. “Our team is reviewing the details of each case to understand what happened and using those insights to inform our safety training and procedures across all employee groups.”

John Nance, a veteran aviation expert and ABC News analyst, described the recent incidents as “routine emergencies” and said pilots are well-trained in procedures to handle such mechanical issues safely.

Nance said there’s no evidence the SFO incidents are connected.

“For the most part, nothing ever goes wrong” on the 32,000 commercial flights per day in the U.S., he said, stressing airlines’ intense focus on safety.

Darby, the other aviation expert, agreed that the SFO incidents appear to be an unlucky coincidence—and a small number out of the millions of flights flown annually. According to a United fact sheet, the airline handles an average of more than 240 flights a day.

Both experts said they have no hesitation about the safety of commercial air travel, which relies on redundancies to prevent simple mechanical failures from becoming catastrophic.

“Driving down the highway at 60 miles per hour is 20 times more dangerous than flying at altitude at 600 miles per hour,” Darby said.