United Airlines is one of the largest airline operators in the world. In 2021, United served 71.7 million passengers and had over 12 % of the U.S. domestic market share, fourth among U.S. airlines. Together with its regional airline partner United Express, on any given day United has flights to over 238 domestic destinations and 118 international destinations in 48 countries or regions across five continents.
Still, some may ask, is United Airlines safe? The short answer is yes, the airline is safe. If you’re looking to understand why then keep reading.
Early Days of United Airlines
Examining the safety record of a legacy airline such as United Airlines requires some consideration for how very long the airline has been in operation. United’s history goes all the way back to 1926, as one of the first air mail carriers. At that time, commercial air travel was in its infancy and growing rapidly. Most of the technology and industry maturity that yields our very safe and efficient commercial travel system of today were far off in the future.
United Airlines was originally a joint venture of the Boeing Airplane Company and the engine manufacturer Pratt and Whitney. This is an example of how the early pioneering airlines such as United literally had to fund and participate in the research, creation, and establishment of the various and diverse components of the first air travel network.
It was not until “lessons learned” from the massive amount of military aviation activity during World War II could be implemented were the airline industry and governments able to slowly develop the very safe air travel system we enjoy today.
United focused primarily on domestic/North America routes until 1983 when it began service to Tokyo from Seattle and Portland. In 1985 United began purchasing international routes from fading Pan American World Airways (Pan Am) and bought Pan Am’s entire Pacific Division, including routes and aircraft, in 1991.
Innovation in Operation
In 1997, United co-founded Star Alliance with Air Canada, Lufthansa, Scandinavian Airlines, and Thai Airways. Since then, the alliance has grown to 26 airlines total. The alliance allows code sharing for seamless connections and frequent flyer mile accumulation for United’s customers. Soon other airlines replicated their own alliances, following United’s lead.
United operates an extensive “hub and spoke” system of flights, operating over a large network of hub airports across the U.S. These hubs include Cleveland Hopkins International Airport, Chicago O’Hare International Airport, Denver International Airport, Houston George Bush Intercontinental Airport, Los Angeles International Airport Newark Liberty International Airport, San Francisco International Airport Washington Dulles International Airport. United’s international hub airports are Antonio B. Won Pat International Airport, Guam, and Narita International Airport, Japan.
Airline Safety Factors
Four broad factors that affect airline safety. These include:
- Human factors (pilot error, crew coordination, training, physical factors, and operating procedures)
- Mechanical failure (FAA standards, effective procedures, training, and due diligence when beginning to use new aircraft, components, and systems)
- Weather (including developing effective policies and procedures to avoid the hazards of adverse weather)
- Miscellaneous (air traffic control, wildlife, airport operations, and terrorism/criminal activity)
All airlines have a direct duty and responsibility to their customers/passengers for eliminating or mitigating hazards from the first three factors, and training and company culture can help mitigate hazards posed by the elements of the fourth factor.
United Airlines, as a major carrier, has the vast resources and skilled employees necessary to address airline safety in depth. In fact, given the pervasive safety culture in the aviation industry, the major U.S. carriers make significant contributions to overall airline safety every day.
United Airlines Has a Modern Fleet
As you might expect, United has the third-largest commercial airline fleet in the world, with over 850 Boeing and Airbus aircraft. The airline also has 558 aircraft on order, with deliveries beginning in 2023 and continuing through 2027. Among the new aircraft on order are 45 Airbus A350-900 aircraft, their first Airbus wide-body aircraft in the United fleet.
United’s aircraft fleet averages 15.1 years. The fleet is on par with its peer competitor Delta Air Lines, but older than American Airlines. The planned aircraft acquisitions and retirements will lower the average age of the fleet significantly.
United has six regional partner airlines that make up the United Express network. These individual regional airlines operate short- and medium-haul feeder flights into United’s hubs and operate fleets of Bombardier CRJ 200, 550, 700 aircraft, and Embraer 170, 175, and Embraer ERJ-145XR aircraft.
On June 3, 2021, United announced the initial purchase of at least 15 Boom Supersonics’ Overture supersonic airliners, with possible future acquisitions of up to 50 aircraft in total. These aircraft will be flown with 100% sustainable fuels, resulting in a near-zero carbon footprint for each flight. The Overture aircraft are projected to enter into service with United in 2029.
If it comes to fruition, this achievement will make United the first operator of supersonic aircraft in domestic service since the British Airways and Air France Concordes were retired in 2003.
United Airlines Is Certified by the Federal Aviation Administration
United Airlines is authorized to operate scheduled commercial passenger air service under Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR) Part 121 Certification, which outlines the rules and requirements the company must adhere to in order to act as a scheduled airline.
United Airlines Incidents, Accidents, and Allegations
Given the sheer size, scope, and volume of United Airiness operations, it is understandable that a variety of safety incidents are bound to occur over time.
Aside from the difficulties that faced all users of the Boeing 737 MAX aircraft, United has not experienced any significant particular safety decencies or trends in its operations. Once the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) published procedures for the operators of 737 MAX aircraft to return their fleet to service, United took significant additional measures, beyond the FAA requirements, before resuming operation of the aircraft.
Another recent safety issue that has arisen is the number of incidents of intoxicated pilots, which was experienced by major U.S. large carriers United, Delta, and American Airlines. At the same time, no major U.S. air carrier has experienced a fatal accident since 2009. This makes these airlines some of the safest airlines in the world.
United Airlines and COVID-19
At the start of the COVID 19 pandemic, United Airlines (UA) partnered with Clorox for disinfecting expertise and Clorox’s suite of products to sanitize their aircraft. While the award should be taken with a grain of salt, United Airlines was the first airline among the four largest U.S. carriers to be awarded Diamond status by APEX Health Safety powered by SimpliFlying for UA’s cleanliness and sanitation efforts.
During the rapidly changing circumstances of the pandemic, United also teamed up with the Cleveland Clinic to develop COVID-19 best practices for the safety of its employees and customers.
Summary: Is Flying with United Airlines Safe?
As a pioneering legacy major air carrier, United Airlines has a demonstrated record of many decades of safe and efficient flight operations. United safely transports literally hundreds of millions of passengers each year, on almost two million flights annually across the globe, with very few incidents.
As a major U.S. carrier, United has contributed immeasurably to the large safe, and efficient airline system we enjoy today. Given United Airlines’ sheer size, long years of operation, and diligence of its management team, United is a very safe airline to fly.