Dozens of Boeing 777 planes were grounded worldwide Monday following a weekend scare on a United Airlines’ plane that suffered engine failure and scattered airplane debris over suburban Denver.
The incident on the flight out of Denver — which quickly returned to the airport after part of the engine caught fire and broke off — prompted United and other airlines to ground planes with the same Pratt & Whitney engine.
While no one was injured in the Denver incident, the episode is the latest setback for Boeing, which only recently resumed deliveries of the long-grounded 737 MAX following two fatal crashes of that plane.
Aviation experts said the incident especially raised questions about Pratt & Whitney and United over engine maintenance.
“It’s nothing like the MAX,” said Teal Group aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia. “After all these years of service it is unlikely to be a design issue with the engine, certainly it is something to do with maintenance.”
The Denver incident followed a Japan Airlines 777 incident in December involving the same type of engine, as well as an engine problem in February 2018 on a United flight.
“There might be a common theme” among the three incidents “but until the investigation is complete, we don’t know that,” said Scott Hamilton of Leeham News, an aviation news site.
Boeing said all 128 of the 777s with Pratt & Whitney engines were grounded following Saturday’s emergency landing of United flight 328 to Hawaii.
Of the 128 planes, only 69 were in service while 59 were in storage.
Besides United, which removed 24 planes from service, affected carriers included Japanese carriers, Japan Airlines and All Nippon and South Korean airlines, Asiana and Korean Air.
Egyptian state newspaper Al Ahram reported Monday that national carrier Egyptair is grounding four planes with this type of engine. However, those aircraft were not presently in service, according to a source close to the manufacturer.
British Transport Secretary Grant Shapps announced a temporary ban on jets with Pratt & Whitney 4000-112 series engines from entering UK airspace.
Engine on fire
A video shot from inside the United aircraft — which had 231 passengers and 10 crew on board — showed the right engine ablaze and wobbling on the wing of the Boeing 777-200.
Residents in the Denver suburb of Broomfield found large pieces of the plane scattered around their community.
The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has ordered extra inspections after the incident.
FAA chief Steve Dickson said a preliminary safety data review pointed to a need for additional checks of the jet engine’s fan blades, which were unique to the model and only used on 777 planes.
Officials from the FAA met with Pratt & Whitney and Boeing representatives on Sunday evening, he added.
The US National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB) said a preliminary investigation indicated two fan blades fractured on the number 2 engine on the plan.
“The airplane sustained minor damage,” the NTSB said in a statement Sunday. “The examination and documentation of the airplane is ongoing.”
Pratt & Whitney said it was cooperating with the NTSB probe and “will continue to work to ensure the safe operation of the fleet.”
(The NTSB said the flight had 229 passengers, but United confirmed there were 231.)
United said Sunday it was removing the aircraft from its schedule, “and will continue to work closely with regulators to determine any additional steps.”
Japan’s transport ministry earlier said it had ordered stricter inspections of engines after a Japan Airlines 777 plane flying from Haneda to Naha experienced trouble with “an engine in the same family” in December.
Navigating industry downturn
The engine failure is unwelcome news for Boeing, which also faces a fresh investigation in Holland after a Boeing 747-400 cargo plane showered a small town Meerssen with debris injuring two people — the same day as the Denver incident.
“We have started a preliminary investigation,” said Luisa Hubregtse of the Dutch Safety Board, the organisation responsible for looking into aviation incidents.
“However, at this stage it’s too early to draw any conclusions,” she told AFP.
Boeing only recently resumed deliveries of the 737 MAX following a 20-month global grounding after two tragic crashes killed 346 people.
The MAX began returning to commercial service in late 2020, a time when airline travel remains depressed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Boeing executives said last month they expect it will take about three years for activity to return to pre-pandemic levels.
Michel Merluzeau, an expert at consultancy AIR, agreed the latest problem did not appear to result from poor plane design by the aerospace giant.
“It’s not really a problem for Boeing,” he said. “It’s more an issue of maintenance — how United or Pratt & Whitney is maintaining engines that have been in use for a while.”
Hamilton of Leeham News said the episode “is an embarrassing headline, but as a practical issue, it will have no impact on Boeing.”
Noting the weak demand for longer-service planes during Covid-19, Hamilton predicted some of the carriers could opt to retire the planes rather than return them to service.
Shares of Boeing fell 2.1 percent to $212.88, while Pratt & Whitney’s parent company Raytheon Technologies fell 1.7 percent to $73.00.
United rose 3.5 percent to $49.70, joining other carriers in rallying after a positive note from Deutsche Bank about the industry’s prospects amid improving Covid-19 trends.
Hi, Robot: Japan’s android pets ease virus isolation
Nami Hamaura says she feels less lonely working from home thanks to her singing companion Charlie, one of a new generation of cute and clever Japanese robots whose sales are booming in the pandemic.
Smart home assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa have found success worldwide, but tech firms in Japan are reporting huge demand for more humanlike alternatives, as people seek solace during coronavirus isolation.
“I felt my circle became very small,” said 23-year-old Hamaura, a recent graduate who has worked almost entirely remotely since April 2020.
With socialising limited, life in her first job at a Tokyo trading company was nothing like she had imagined.
So she adopted Charlie, a mug-sized robot with a round head, red nose and flashing bow-tie, who converses with its owner in song.
|In this picture taken on February 4, 2021 shows communication robot Charlie being pictured in Nami Hamaura’s apartment in Tokyo. Photo: AFP|
Yamaha, which makes Charlie, describes it as “more chatty than a pet, but less work than a lover”.
“He is there for me to chat with as someone other than family, or friends on social networks, or a boss I needed to produce a report for,” Hamaura told AFP.
She is a pre-launch test customer for Charlie, which Yamaha plans to release later this year.
“Charlie, tell me something interesting,” she asks while typing at her dining table.
“Well, well… balloons burst when you spray lemon juice!” he replies, cheerfully tilting his head to each side.
|In this picture taken on February 4, 2021 shows Nami Hamaura talking with communication robot Charlie in her apartment in Tokyo. Photo: AFP|
‘Every object has a soul’
Sharp said sales of its small humanoid Robohon were up 30 percent in the three months to September 2020 compared with a year earlier.
“Not only families with children, but also seniors in their 60s and 70s” are snapping up Robohon, which talks, dances and is also a working phone, a Sharp spokesman told AFP.
But the adorable android — first released in 2016 and only available in Japan — does not come cheap, with regular models priced between $820 and $2,250.
Charlie and Robohon are part of a new wave of robot companions pioneered by firms such as Sony with its robot dog Aibo, on sale since 1999, and SoftBank’s friendly Pepper, which hit shelves in 2015.
“Many Japanese people accept the idea that every object has a soul,” said Shunsuke Aoki, CEO of robot firm Yukai Engineering.
“They want a robot to have a character, like a friend, family or a pet — not a mechanical function like a dishwasher.”
|In this picture taken on December 20, 2020 shows diners interacting with robots Lovot in a cafe in Kawasaki. Photo: AFP|
Yukai’s robots include Qoobo, a fluffy pillow with a mechanical tail that wiggles like a real pet.
They will soon release their latest home assistant “Bocco emo”, which looks like a miniature snowman and allows families to leave and send voice messages through their phones.
Kaori Takahashi, 32, bought a Yukai robot-building kit for her six-year-old son to keep him occupied during the pandemic.
Robots feel normal in everyday life because they are in so many Japanese children’s films and cartoons, she said.
“I grew up watching anime shows ‘The Astro Boy Essays’ and ‘Doraemon’, which both feature robots, and my children love them too.”
|This picture taken on December 9, 2020 shows Akito Takahashi playing with a handmade robot kit at his apartment in Tokyo. Photo: AFP|
Studies have shown that therapeutic robot pets designed in Japan, such as fluffy mechanical seals, can bring comfort to dementia patients.
But the makers of Lovot — a robot the size of a small toddler, with big round eyes and penguin-like wings that flutter up and down — think everyone can benefit from a bot that just wants to be loved.
It has more than 50 sensors and an internal heating system, making it warm to touch, which it reacts to with squeaks of joy.
|In this picture taken on December 8, 2020 shows Shunsuke Aoki, CEO of Yukai Engineering hugging robotic cushion Qoobo n a studio in Tokyo. Photo: AFP|
Manufacturer Groove X said monthly sales shot up more than tenfold after the coronavirus hit Japan.
A single Lovot costs around $2,800, plus fees for maintenance and software — but those without deep pockets can visit the “Lovot Cafe” near Tokyo instead.
One customer there, 64-year-old Yoshiko Nakagawa, called out to one of the robots fondly by name, as if to a grandson.
During Japan’s virus state of emergency, the capital became “stark and empty”, she said.
“We need time to heal ourselves after this bleak period. If I had one of these babies at home, the heartwarming feeling would probably do the trick.”
|This photo taken on October 3, 2016 shows robot-shaped smartphones called ‘RoBoHoN’, developed by Sharp, on display at a press preview of the Combined Exhibition of Advanced Technologies (CEATEC) Japan in Chiba, in suburban Tokyo. Photo: AFP|
U.S. carries out airstrikes against Iranian-backed militia facilities in Syria: Pentagon
WASHINGTON — U.S. President Joe Biden on Thursday directed U.S. military airstrikes in eastern Syria against facilities belonging to what the Pentagon said were Iran-backed militia, in a calibrated response to rocket attacks against U.S. targets in Iraq.
The strikes, which were first reported by Reuters, appeared to be limited in scope, potentially lowering the risk of escalation.
Biden’s decision to strike only in Syria and not in Iraq, at least for now, also gives the Iraqi government some breathing room as it carries out its own investigation of a Feb. 15 attack that wounded Americans.
“At President (Joe) Biden’s direction, U.S. military forces earlier this evening conducted airstrikes against infrastructure utilized by Iranian-backed militant groups in eastern Syria,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said in a statement.
“President Biden will act to protect American and Coalition personnel. At the same time, we have acted in a deliberate manner that aims to de-escalate the overall situation in both eastern Syria and Iraq,” Kirby said.
He added that the strikes destroyed multiple facilities at a border control point used by a number of Iranian-backed militant groups, including Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH) and Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada (KSS).
A U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the decision to carry out these strikes was meant to send a signal that while the United States wanted to punish the militias, it did not want the situation to spiral into a bigger conflict.
The official added that Biden was presented with a range of options and one of the most limited responses was chosen.
It was not immediately clear what damage was caused and if there were any casualties from the U.S. strike.
Retaliatory U.S. military strikes have occurred a number of times in the past few years.
The rocket attacks on U.S. positions in Iraq were carried out as Washington and Tehran are looking for a way to return to the 2015 nuclear deal abandoned by former U.S. President Donald Trump.
It was not clear how, or whether, the strike might affect U.S. efforts to coax Iran back into a negotiation about both sides resuming compliance with the agreement.
In the Feb. 15 attack, rockets hit the U.S. military base housed at Erbil International Airport in the Kurdish-run region killing one non-American contractor and injuring a number of American contractors and a U.S. service member. Another salvo struck a base hosting U.S. forces north of Baghdad days later hurting at least one contractor.
Rockets hit Baghdad’s Green Zone on Monday which houses the U.S. embassy and other diplomatic missions.
Earlier this week, the Kata’ib Hezbollah group, one of the main Iran-aligned Iraqi militia groups, denied any role in the rocket attacks.
Some Western and Iraqi officials say the attacks, often claimed by little-known groups, are being carried out by militants with links to Kata’ib Hezbollah as a way for Iranian allies to harass U.S. forces without being held accountable.
Since late 2019, the United States carried out high-profile strikes against the Kata’ib Hezbollah militia group in Iraq and Syria in response to sometimes deadly rocket attacks against U.S.-led forces.
Under the Trump administration, the escalator back-and-forth stoked tensions, culminating in the U.S. killing of Iranian military leader Qassem Soleimani and a retaliatory Iranian ballistic missile attack against U.S. forces in Iraq last year.
Facebook switches news back on in Australia, signs content deals
SYDNEY — Facebook Inc ended a one-week blackout of Australian news on its popular social media site on Friday and announced preliminary commercial agreements with three small local publishers.
The moves reflected easing tensions between the U.S. company and the Australian government, a day after the country’s parliament passed a law forcing it and Alphabet Inc’s Google to pay local media companies for using content on their platforms.
The new law makes Australia the first nation where a government arbitrator can set the price Facebook and Google pay domestic media to show their content if private negotiations fail.
Canada and other countries have shown interest in replicating Australia’s reforms.
Facebook said it had signed partnership agreements with Schwartz Media, Solstice Media and Private Media.
The trio own a mix of publications, including weekly newspapers, online magazines and specialist periodicals.
Facebook did not disclose the financial details of the agreements, which will become effective within 60 days if a full deal is signed.
“These agreements will bring a new slate of premium journalism, including some previously paywalled content, to Facebook,” the social media company said in a statement.
The non-binding agreements allay some fears that small Australian publishers would be left out of revenue-sharing deals with Facebook and Google.
“It’s never been more important than it is now to have a plurality of voices in the Australian press,” said Schwartz Media Chief Executive Rebecca Costello.
Facebook on Tuesday struck a similar agreement with Seven West Media, which owns a free-to-air television network and the main metropolitian newspaper in the city of Perth.
The Australian Broadcasting Corp has said it was also in talks with Facebook.
Facebook and Google threatened for months to pull core services from Australia if the media laws took effect.
While Google struck deals with several publishers including News Corp as the legislation made its way through parliament, Facebook took the more drastic step of blocking all news content in Australia.
That stance led to amendments to the laws, including giving the government the power to exempt Facebook or Google from mandatory arbitration, and Facebook on Friday began restoring the Australian news sites.
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