The aircraft was preparing for a takeoff to Bogota, Colombia, when “a nose gear tire came loose from the landing gear,” the Atlanta-based airline said in a statement.
The passengers on board and their bags were taken off the plane, and were transported to the gate by bus. They eventually boarded another plane, but the flight took off more than five hours late, according to FlightAware.com. Delta apologized to customers for the inconvenience.
According to an FAA incident notice, the aircraft was lined up and waiting for takeoff when the “nose wheel came off and rolled down the hill.”
In communications with air traffic control, the pilot of the aircraft said: “Tower, sounds like we got a problem,” according to a recording posted on LiveATC.net. The pilot then waited for a tug to tow the plane off the runway.
It’s unclear if the nose tire issue is an isolated incident involving maintenance of a single aircraft or if it points to a broader problem.
It’s also yet to be seen whether the incident will trigger a broader review of maintenance of aircraft at Delta. The airline said it is reviewing the matter.
John Cox, CEO of aviation safety consulting firm Safety Operating Systems and a retired airline pilot, said it’s rare for airplanes to lose tires like this, and there are two wheels in place for redundancy.
In past incidents Cox has investigated, he said the cause “often times is interrupted work in maintenance, where the maintenance technician is working on something and then they find out they have to stop – and one of the steps gets left out.”
“That’s a bigger industry issue, not only in airlines but in manufacturing and everything else,” Cox said. “The maintenance staff with Delta is highly skilled, and so they’ll figure out what happened and take the steps to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Delta’s fleet of Boeing 757-200s has an average age of more than 25 years, according to an annual filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission last year. Delta has a mix of older and newer aircraft in its fleet, and airlines regularly conduct maintenance and replace parts on older aircraft.
During a discussion in an October conference call on financial results, Delta Chief Financial Officer Dan Janki said the company was “going through a wave of overhauls” on its 757s, which he called “a workhorse in our fleet.”
When asked about whether to replace those aircraft with newer planes, Janki said with the 757, “the returns are very good related to how we deployed and fly it within our network. So we have leaned on it.”
Airlines have faced delays in deliveries of new aircraft to replace older planes, dating back to supply chain issues before the pandemic and exacerbated by challenges during the pandemic. Delta CEO Ed Bastian noted during the conference call that supply chain delays are affecting production of new engines and parts. Those supply chain issues affecting new production are a constraint “that’s going to keep us all pretty limited in the amount of capacity that we can produce,” he said.
Bastian said while the 757 overhauls “may hit the expense line, we know this is a long-term asset that’s going to pay dividends for years to come.” Delta President Glen Hauenstein noted that the 757s would “get to the end of life.,.. toward the end of this decade.”
737s under scrutiny
While the Delta incident involved an older aircraft, the FAA is conducting a separate investigation targeted at newer Boeing airplanes.
The FAA temporarily grounded all 737 Max 9 jets pending review and approval of an inspection and maintenance process following the Alaska Airlines incident. That resulted in flight cancellations on Alaska Airlines and United Airlines, the two U.S. airlines that have the 737 Max 9 in their fleets.
The CEO of Boeing was scheduled to meet with U.S. senators this week on the matter, according to Reuters.
The impact of the incident broadened to more planes this week when the FAA issued a safety alert recommending that airlines inspect door plugs on Boeing 737-900ERs that are older than the Max 9s, which have the same door plug design.
The FAA said in the safety alert released Sunday that some airlines “have noted findings with bolts during the maintenance inspections.” It recommended visual inspections of the four locations where bolts secure the door to the airframe “as soon as possible.”
Delta, which has the Boeing 737-900ER in its fleet, said Wednesday it has completed the inspections of its 737-900ER fleet.
“We remain in close communication with Boeing and are in full compliance with their safety inspection request,” Delta said in a written statement.