A succession of mishaps turned into something more serious for Boeing on Wednesday when Japan’s major airlines grounded their 787 fleets.
The emergency landing of an All Nippon Airways Dreamliner following a battery fire alert took the recent spate of safety incidents to a new level.
The alert was described as “highly serious” by Japanese officials, and that undoubtedly describes the situation facing Boeing.
The ANA incident involved neither the first battery alert in recent days nor the first emergency landing in recent weeks.
A senior US analyst told Reuters: “You’re nearing the tipping point. This is going to change people’s perception of the aircraft if they [Boeing] don’t act quickly.”
The trouble is, acting quickly may prove difficult.
Fire is the greatest risk aboard an aircraft, and a risk potentially enhanced by an aspect of an aircraft’s design may require design changes.
ANA said the alert, 18 minutes into a domestic flight, stemmed from a lithium-ion battery in the cargo hold – the second fire alert related to the batteries in a week.
Japan’s Civil Aviation Bureau was already investigating the causes of fuel leaks from a Japan Airlines 787.
A US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) safety review of the Boeing 787 could take months, risking a delay to carriers’ plans to operate the aircraft.
The FAA, the US equivalent of the Civil Aviation Authority, ordered a review of the world’s growing Dreamliner fleet following a spate of incidents last week. On Wednesday it too suspended operations of the aircraft by US carriers.
The worst was a fire on a Japan Airlines 787 at Boston Logan airport caused by a lithium-ion battery – the first used on a passenger aircraft.
Smoke was detected while the aircraft was on the ground, with passengers disembarked, and traced to the battery used to start the auxiliary power unit. However, the fire was only one of five reported problems within days.
Another Japan Airlines 787 suffered a fuel spillage, an ANA 787 developed a problem with its braking system and the cockpit window of a second ANA Dreamliner cracked. A wiring problem was then reported on a United Airlines 787.
These incidents followed those in early December when a United Airlines 787 made an emergency landing at New Orleans after one of six generators failed and Qatar Airways grounded one of its 787s, reporting it had “the same problem as the United aircraft”.
At that point, the FAA ordered checks on the fuel-line couplings of all United Airlines Dreamliners to verify these were correctly assembled and installed.
ANA and Japan Airlines were due to review their decision to ground their fleets today. The pair operate half the Dreamliners currently in service.
The 787 represents a step-change in technology, its light-weight carbon-composite fuselage contributing to substantial fuel saving on existing aircraft.
One of the 787’s features is its greater reliance on auxiliary power so engine fuel is not spent generating electricity for the flight systems.
Another is that 787 parts have been manufactured all over the world, meaning investigators may need to review multiple locations.
A third is the lithium-ion batteries which comprise part of the cost-saving technology. Unfortunately, lithium-ion batteries may catch fire if overcharged.
The FAA promised “a comprehensive review of the Boeing 787 critical systems, including the design, manufacture and assembly”, with an emphasis “on the aircraft’s electrical power and distribution system. The review will also examine how the electrical and mechanical systems interact.”
The review will begin in Seattle “but may expand to other locations over several months”.
FAA administrator Michael Huerta said: “We need a complete understanding of what is happening. The Dreamliner is a new aircraft with many innovations. We’re confident about the safety of this aircraft, but we are concerned about these incidents.”
The CAA will play no part in the review as no UK carriers operate the 787 at present. However, Thomson Airways is due to take delivery of its first Dreamliner next month and to begin its long-haul programme to Cancun and Orlando with the aircraft in May. British Airways expects its first 787 in May.
Thomson Airways said yesterday: “Boeing has reassured us they are reviewing all the issues and taking action to rectify them. We’ve been told this won’t affect our delivery dates.”
At the same time Qatar Airways, which began daily 787 flights from Heathrow last month, went ahead this week with the launch of 787 services from Munich and Zurich and will launch to Perth on February 1.
Boeing expressed “complete confidence” in the 787, pointing out the 50 already in service operate more than 150 flights a day.
Boeing chief executive Jim McNerney said: “We look forward to the review and believe it will underscore our confidence and the confidence of our customers and the travel public.”
The 787 entered service in September 2011.
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