FAA orders US Dreamliners grounded

REUTERS
Last updated 14:15 17/01/2013

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The US Federal Aviation Administration is temporarily grounding Boeing's 787s after a second incident involving battery failures caused one of the Dreamliner passenger jets to make an emergency landing in Japan.

The FAA said airlines would have to demonstrate that the lithium ion batteries involved were safe before they could resume flying Boeing's newest commercial airliner, but gave no details on when that could occur.

Air New Zealand is set to take delivery of 10 Boeing 787-9 jets in the second half of 2014, but has refused to comment beyond saying it was going ahead with its order. 

Boeing chairman and chief executive Jim McNerney said after the FAA grounding that the safety of passengers and crew members was the company's highest priority.

"Boeing is committed to supporting the FAA and finding answers as quickly as possible. We will make available the entire resources of The Boeing Company to assist," McNerney said in a statement.

"We are confident the 787 is safe and we stand behind its overall integrity. We will be taking every necessary step in the coming days to assure our customers and the traveling public of the 787's safety and to return the airplanes to service.

"Boeing deeply regrets the impact that recent events have had on the operating schedules of our customers and the inconvenience to them and their passengers."

The 787, which has a list price of US$207 million ($246 million), represents a leap in the way planes are designed and built, but the project has been plagued by cost overruns and years of delays. Some have suggested Boeing's rush to get planes built after those delays resulted in the recent problems, a charge the company denies.

According to flight tracking website FlightAware, some seven Dreamliners were in the air on Wednesday night as the FAA order came down, including a United Airlines flight that left Los Angeles for Houston just a few minutes before the order. United could not be immediately reached for comment.

The use of new battery technology is among the cost-saving features of the 787, which Boeing says burns 20 per cent less fuel than rival jetliners using older technology.

Lithium ion batteries can catch fire if they are overcharged and, once alight, they are difficult to put out as the chemicals produce oxygen, Boeing's chief engineer for the 787, Mike Sinnett, told reporters last week. He said lithium ion was not the only battery choice, but "it was the right choice".

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In Asia, only the Japanese and Air India have the Dreamliner in service, but airlines globally have ordered around 850 of the new aircraft.

Boeing has said it will at least break even on the cost of building the 1100 new 787s it expects to deliver over the next decade. Some analysts, however, say Boeing may never make money from the aircraft, given its enormous development cost.

Any additional cost from fixing problems discovered by the string of recent incidents would affect those forecasts and could hit Boeing's bottom line more quickly if it has to stop delivering planes, analysts said.

 

BATTERY PROBLEMS

 

In the latest incident, All Nippon Airways (ANA) said instruments aboard a domestic flight indicated a battery error, triggering emergency warnings. The incident was described by a transport ministry official as "highly serious" - language used in international safety circles as indicating there could have been an accident.

That led ANA and Japan Airlines (JAL) to ground their 24 Dreamliners pending checks. Japanese transportation officials said they could not immediately comment on the FAA decision, as did a spokesman for JAL. An ANA spokeswoman said the FAA's order meant the airline could not use its 787s on its US routes.

 

ANA flight 692 left Yamaguchi Airport in western Japan shortly after 8am local time (noon NZT) bound for Haneda Airport near Tokyo, a 65-minute flight.

About 18 minutes into the flight, at 9000 metres, the plane began a descent, cutting its altitude to 6000 metres in about four minutes. It made an emergency landing 16 minutes later, according to flight-tracking website Flightaware.com. 

A spokesman for Osaka airport authority said the plane landed at Takamatsu at 8.45am. All 129 passengers and eight crew evacuated via the plane's inflatable chutes. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said five people were slightly injured. 

At a news conference - where ANA's vice-president Osamu Shinobe bowed deeply in apology - the carrier said a battery in the forward cargo hold triggered emergency warnings to the pilots, who decided on the emergency action. 

Marc Birtel, a Boeing spokesman, told Reuters: "We've seen the reports, we're aware of the events and are working with our customer."

 

'HIGHLY CAPABLE AIRPLANE'

Before the latest incident, a spokesperson for Boeing said the issues were "typical for a new airplane programme" and the 787 was a "safe and highly capable airplane".

But other recent incidents on Dreamliners include fuel leaks, a battery fire, wiring problem, brake computer glitch and cracked cockpit window.

However, ANA said its planes could be back in the air as soon as Thursday (Japan time) once checks were completed. The two carriers operate around half of the 50 Dreamliners delivered by Boeing to date. 

The FAA's ability to prohibit aircraft from flying further than three hours from a suitable emergency landing strip has called into question whether Air New Zealand will be able to get as much value from the craft as it hoped to.

Usually new aircraft progress through monitoring stages and are able to fly up to five-and-a-half hours from an emergency airport, but concerns over the 787's safety have slowed that progress. 

 

Barring a prolonged grounding or a severe and uncontained crisis, aircraft industry sources say there is no immediate threat of cancellations for the plane, even after the FAA's decision to halt 787 flights.

Among other reasons, they cite the heavy costs of retraining and investing in new infrastructure, as well as a shortage of alternatives in an industry dominated by just two large jet suppliers.

The Dreamliner's problems could sharpen competition between Boeing and its European rival Airbus, which itself experienced a dip in sales for its A380 superjumbo following problems with wing cracks a year ago. The A380 crisis has since eased and most airlines report the aircraft are flying full.

- BusinessDay.co.nz

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