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Analysis: Boeing 787 Dreamliner In the Hot Seat Again After Fire at Heathrow Airport

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Analysis: Boeing 787 Dreamliner In the Hot Seat Again After Fire at Heathrow Airport

Analysis: Boeing 787 Dreamliner In the Hot Seat Again After Fire at Heathrow Airport
July 12
14:50 2013

MIAMI — ANA and United Airlines have both found problems with the Honeywell ELT beacons. The issues appears to involve a pinched wire in the emergency locator transmitter. United has completed its inspection of its six 787 fleet, where it located one defective transmitter. ANA also found the same issue in its ELT on 1 example of its fleet and on another uninstalled portable beacon. ANA has removed all beacons from the eight 787s used on domestic routes .  JAL completed investigations this weekend on its 9 787s. The FAA and Japan’s transport safety ministry followed suit with the UK’s AAIB in recommending removal or inspection of the ELTs, 2 weeks after the Ethiopian issue. European operators LOT, Thomson, Norwegian Air Shuttle, and British Airways (who is set to debut the 787 September 1st) have removed he ELTs from their aircraft but have not reported damage publicly. This far, no airlines other then Ethiopian obviously have suffered service interruptions as result of the ELT issue, though a Qatar 787 has been grounded on Monday due to an unspecified “minor” technical issue. Boeing has now delivered some 70 787s to its customers, around 20 since the grounding order was lifted in April, including new customers China Southern, Norwegian Air Shuttle, Thomson, and British Airways. These ELT issues are still considered unrelated to the lithium-ion battery defects which caused the worldwide grounding back in January. (Update 17: Sunday, July 28 11:15AM E.D.T.)

(Credits: via SkyNews)

(Credits: via SkyNews)

Update 16: Saturday, July 20 10:00AM E.D.T.


 

Friday, the FAA said it will require inspections of emergency locator beacons on U.S.-registered Boeing 787’s. While the UK’s AAIB (Air Accident Investigations Branch) and EASA (European Aviation Safety Administration) directive calls for disconnecting and removing the Honeywell made ELT beacons, the FAA is requiring only inspections for now in the coming days. The FAA is telling airlines to look for “proper wire routing and any sign of wire damage or pinching” as well as any indication of condensation inside the battery case. The official order is expected to come within the next few days, at which time airlines operating the 68 delivered 787s worldwide are expected to follow suit.

Honeywell has made 6,000 ELT’s that are used in a wide range of planes, however this inspection order only applies to the 787. Honeywell CEO David Cote was asked in an analyst’s call how it would be possible for such a relatively small transmitter to cause a fire like the one in the 787 at Heathrow. Cote replied “We’ll just wait to find out what actuals are, and respond to it then….There’s no significant financial impact to Honeywell in any way.”

Update 15: Friday, July 19, 11:00AM E.D.T.


 

The following is the brochure for the Honeywell ELT installed on the Ethiopian 787. The image below shows the technical specifications of the ELT in question.

(Credits: Honeywell)

(Credits: Honeywell)

Boeing has released the following response to the AAIB bulletin via Randy Tinseth’s blog:

Today, the UK Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) issued a special bulletin on last week’s 787 incident at Heathrow Airport. The bulletin makes two recommendations in regards to the Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT). Boeing supports those recommendations and we’re working proactively with the regulatory authorities in taking appropriate action. We’re also coordinating with our customers, suppliers, and other commercial airplane manufacturers.

I know some of you are interested in how the ELT works. While ELTs aren’t necessary for normal airplane operations, their primary purpose is to alert and guide rescue crews to the location of an airplane in the event of an accident. They are found in airplanes across the industry as available options selected by airlines.

An ELT is powered via its own battery with no help from the airplane. The ELT interfaces with the airplane via wires connected to the flight deck so that the pilot can activate the transmitter if necessary. Turning on the transmitter doesn’t transfer any power to the unit. There is a co-ax cable from the unit that connects to the antenna, located on top of the fuselage. If an ELT needs to be removed, it is a straightforward process that takes about one hour.

I wanted to emphasize again that the 787 fleet continues to fly as normal. We’ve delivered 68 of the airplanes to 13 customers. As of last week, the fleet had accumulated more than 23,000 revenue flight hours on 128 different routes since returning to service in late April. We’re confident the 787 is a safe airplane and we stand behind it.

Our team will continue working closely with investigators and regulators as the process continues, while making sure our customers have everything they need. We put the safety of passengers and crew at the top of our list and stand ready to take immediate action.

As per Flightglobal, ANA and Japan Airlines have completed their checks on their 787 fleets, finding no issues:

“We decided to do a visual inspection since we still don’t know what really happened on the Ethiopian aircraft. We found nothing unusual,” says an ANA spokesman…. Japan Airlines adds that the checks were undertaken as a precautionary measure and not sparked by any recommendations from Boeing or the country’s transport ministry.

Honeywell for its part has stated that it will remove its ELTs from the 787 if asked to do so. Previous Honeywell ELTs have been subject to airworthiness directives from EASA.

Thomson Airways has already removed the ELTs from its 787s with no disruption to service, while United Airlines has performed visual checks of its transmitters on 6 787s “with no findings” as per Reuters.

According to a Wall Street Journal report, the 787 won’t have to be scrapped, though the ELT will have to be removed.

However, a person familiar with the investigation says that the fire didn’t breach the carbon-fiber skin of the Dreamliner, likely meaning that the jet won’t have to be scrapped.

More information is emerging about the repair challenge posed by this Dreamliner.

The following article from Forbes discusses these challenges in-depth.

This paper, from the SAMPE journal, is entitled: An Examination of Potential FST Hazards Regarding the Usage of CF/Epoxies for Fuselages in the New Generation Commercial Aircraft Such as the Boeing 787 and the Airbus 350. The following technical summary raises interesting and important questions about the 787.

  • CFRP epoxy systems are well proven laden with toxins, and smoke and are banned for interiors since the mid 1980’s by FAA edicts and regulations.
  • CFRP epoxy systems auto-ignite around 300 degrees C (580 degrees F) versus auto-ignition temperatures of 1950 degrees F for aerospace aluminum alloys. Obviously, Aluminum alloys contain a bunch of nasties also, but the melting point of most aerospace alloys is in the 950 degrees F range, approximately 2X that of CFRP and the auto-ignition point of traditional aluminum alloys are 4X that of CFRP.
  • CFRP using epoxies as employed on Boeing 787 significantly add to the fuel load and immensely complicate and test fire-fighting times and personnel hazards as proven by the B-2A crash in Guam in early 2008

It has also raised questions, yet again, about Boeing’s outsourcing strategy for the 787. This op-ed from The Seattle Times provides a good starting point on the issue.

Meanwhile, this article from the Supply Chain Forum journal provides a more in-depth look at the outsourcing challenges on the 787. This page in particular provides a good overview of Boeing’s 787 outsourcing strategy.

(Credits: Boeing)

(Credits: Boeing)

Update 14: Thursday, July 18, 11:30AM E.S.T.


 

This morning, the British Air Incidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) released an initial report about their investigation of lat week’s Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 787 fire in London.

The investigation into the cause of last week’s fire is now being focused on the Emergency Locator Transmitter as the AAIB report explains that “there are no other aircraft systems in this vicinity which, with the aircraft unpowered, contain stored energy capable of initiating a fire in the area of heat damage.” The ELT is powered by Lithium-Manganese batteries which allows the ELT to operate as required.

Even though the AAIB says a thermal event is “extremely rare,” caution needs to be taken as the AAIB says that “large transport aircraft do not typically carry the means of fire detection or suppression in the space above the cabin ceilings and had this event occurred in flight it could pose a significant safety concern and raise challenges for the cabin crew in tackling the resulting fire.” The AAIB recommends that the FAA should initiate the steps to disable the 787’s emergency locator device and to conduct a safety review of the device.

The AAIB has made the following safety recommendations:

Safety Recommendation 2013-016
It is recommended that the Federal Aviation Administration initiate action for making inert the Honeywell International RESCU406AFN fixed Emergency Locator Transmitter system in Boeing 787 aircraft until appropriate airworthiness actions can be completed.
Safety Recommendation 2013-017
It is recommended that the Federal Aviation Administration, in association with other regulatory authorities, conduct a safety review of installations of Lithium-powered Emergency Locator Transmitter systems in other aircraft types and, where appropriate, initiate airworthiness action
Shortly after the AAIB report was posted, Boeing issued the following statement:

SEATTLE, July 18, 2013 — The safety of passengers and crew members who fly aboard Boeing airplanes is our highest priority.

 

As a party to the investigation, Boeing supports the two recommendations from the UK Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB), which we think are reasonable precautionary measures to take as the investigation proceeds. We are working proactively to support the regulatory authorities in taking appropriate action in response to these recommendations, in coordination with our customers, suppliers, and other commercial airplane manufacturers.

 

We are confident the 787 is safe and we stand behind its overall integrity.

Update 13: Tuesday, July 16, 1:30AM E.S.T.


 

In an update from Reuters, the FAA along with other global regulators told airlines that they recommended replacing the Honeywell ELT as it failed a few tests in 2009. John Hansman, an aeronautics professor at MIT who has been an adviser to the FAA, says that it is possible that the ELT caused the fire, but he says that it seems unlikely. Some U.S. aviation and safety officials are saying this is the first time they could recall investigating the transmitter as a possible cause of an aircraft fire.

Update 12: Monday, July 15, 16:00PM E.S.T.


 

At 15:52PM E.S.T., Honeywell Aerospace tweet out that there ELT’s were certified in 2005 for a variety of aircraft, and no issues have been ever reported.

787 Update: Premature to speculate or draw conclusions. Our ELTs were certified in 2005; on a variety of aircraft w/ no issues ever reported -@Honeywell_Aero

Update 11: Monday, July 15, 14:30PM E.S.T.


 

The investigation into the cause of the Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 787 Dreamliner battery fire that occurred at London Heathrow last Friday is now turning to the Boeing 787 Emergency Locator Transmitter as a possible cause or contributor to the fire.

The Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT) is made by Honeywell Incorporated. The ELT is located in the upper rear part of the 787, and it is operated by a lithium manganese. According to a Tweet from Jon Ostrower (@jonostrower), lithium manganese “has a less volatile history” than the lithium ion batteries which grounded the 787 earlier this year.

Honeywell issued the following statement:

Honeywell has been invited to participate in the Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 787 fire investigation by the UK’s Air Accidents Investigation Branch. We’ve sent technical experts to Heathrow to assist with the investigation; however at this time it is premature to speculate on the cause of the fire. We will continue to work closely with Boeing and the NTSB and await the analysis and output of the investigation before drawing any conclusions.

Update 10: Monday, July 15, 13:01PM E.S.T.


 

Just a few minutes ago, Jon Ostrower, an Aerospace Reporter for The Wall Street Journal tweeted out that “Investigators are examining the Boeing 787 Emergency Locator Transmitter as a possible cause or contributor to the Heathrow fire.”

BREAKING WSJ: Investigators examining Boeing 787 Emergency Locator Transmitter as possible cause or contributor to Heathrow fire -Sources -@jonostrower

Update 9: Monday, July 15, 7:00 E.S.T


 

Ethiopian Airlines has released the following statement via its Facebook account:

The incident involving ET787 on Friday, 12 July 2013 in London is now under investigation. As per international rules, information concerning the investigation must come from, or be approved by the investigation body.

Initial reports are that any primary conclusions in the incident will take several days.

Most major investment banks have joined the chorus in treating this as a one-off event; Bernstein Research, CitiGroup, JP Morgan, Credit Suisse, et. al have all maintained their current rating of Boeing stock thus far; two of them even put out research notes in doing so.

The following graphic from a Boeing presentation on the 787 shows the electrical systems and distribution of the 787, including the role of the RPDUs.

(Credits: Boeing)

(Credits: Boeing)

Update 8: Sunday, July 14, 10:40 E.S.T


 

As per Jon Ostrower, the 787’s aft ceiling had Remote Data Concentrators (RDCs) and Remote Power Distribution Units (RPDUs). The aircraft was reportedly on Fixed Electrical Ground Power (FEGP – see the following info from Heathrow Airport: Link) and that is where the investigation is being focused.

As we continue to ponder the enormous repair challenge presented by the damage to the787’s carbon-fiber reinforced polymer (CFRP) skin, the following article from the National Resource Council of Canada entitled Fire Performance of Fibre-Reinforced Polymer Systems Used for the Repair of Concrete Buildings, and posted on airliners.net provides some additional context. The following chart presents some interesting info:

Graph showing loss of strength for different polymers as temperatures rise - Source: National Research Council Canada. (Credits: Author)

Graph showing loss of strength for different polymers as temperatures rise – Source: National Research Council Canada. (Credits: Author)

As per the chart, the 787’s CFRP would have lost half of its strength once the temperature rose past 300 degrees Celsius, or 572 degrees Fahrenheit. An important passage from the piece:

The polymer matrix supports and protects the fibres, transfers and distributes forces to the fibres, and disperses and maintains the spacing of the fibres. The polymers used in structural applications need to have good thermal stability, chemical resistance and low creep. In fire situations, the matrix is the vulnerable component of FRPs because of its combustibility and softening with rising temperatures.

Another important passage is:

Using insulated FRPs to repair concrete means that after a fire, it may be possible to replace the FRP system – the FRP and insulation – rather than replace the reinforced concrete member.

Given the likely temperature that the fuselage burned at, it is a testament to the strength of the CFRP outer skin that the amount of damage on the 787 was relatively limited.

The following presentation from Boeing Commercial Airplanes discusses repairs to the outer skin of the 787: Link

The following slides from that presentation relate to lightning strikes to a CFRP fuselage, and may provide information on how to tackle the repairs to the Ethiopian 787.

(Credits: Boeing)

(Credits: Boeing)

(Credits: Boeing)

(Credits: Boeing)

 

The following presentation from Japan Airlines also discusses CFRP repair: Link

This article from Composites World magazine describes the challenges of composite repair. An important passage from that article is:

For permanent repairs, wet layup bonded repairs must be cured at 180°F/82°C to 200°F/93°C. Prepreg repairs, which can be used to repair thinner sandwich panels as well as the thick solid laminates common to the load-bearing structures on both the Boeing 787 and Airbus A380, cure at temperatures ranging from 250°F/121°C to 350°F/177°C and are generally left to composite specialists at major repair stations (see “Learn More”).

However, there are no major repair stations near Heathrow, which poses an interesting challenge. Undoubtedly, the Ethiopian 787 is not air-worthy, and bringing the resources; materials, machines, and labor, required to fix the aircraft is enormously difficult. At the very least, this could end up being a costly affair for all those involved.

Update 7: Saturday, July 13, 18:05 E.S.T


 

The following seat map from Seat Guru shows the Ethiopian 787 as having a galley forward of door 4, which would seem to indicate that the source of the fire could have originated in a galley.

(Credits: TripAdvisor)

(Credits: TripAdvisor)

Update 6: Saturday July 13, 12:55 E.S.T.


 

The British Air Incidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) has put out this press release on the incident.

At approximately 1550 hrs UTC on 12 July 2013 a Boeing 787-8 of Ethiopian Airlines, registration ET-AOP, suffered an event at London Heathrow whilst the aircraft was parked on stand, with no persons on board. The initial witness and physical evidence shows that this event resulted in smoke throughout the fuselage and extensive heat damage in the upper portion of the rear fuselage.
In exercise of his powers the Chief Inspector of the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) has ordered that an investigation into this serious incident be carried out, in accordance with the Civil Aviation (Investigation of Air Accidents and Incidents) Regulations 1996 and the Standards and Recommended Practices of Annex 13 of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). The sole objective of the investigation is to determine the causal and contributory factors of this serious incident, with the intention of preventing a recurrence. It is not the purpose to apportion blame or liability.
In accordance with these international standards and recommended practices, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), USA, representing the State of Design and Manufacture, and the Civil Aviation Authority of Ethiopia, representing the State of Registry and Operator, have been invited to appoint Accredited Representatives to participate in the investigation, along with advisors from the Federal Aviation Administration, Boeing Commercial Airplanes and Ethiopian Airlines. The AAIB has also invited the participation of the EASA (European Aviation Safety Agency) and the UK CAA (Civil Aviation Authority) as advisors to the investigation. This team, under the direction of the AAIB, has initiated the technical investigation into the event.
The aircraft is currently located in a hangar at London Heathrow. There has been extensive heat damage in the upper portion of the rear fuselage, a complex part of the aircraft, and the initial investigation is likely to take several days. However, it is clear that this heat damage is remote from the area in which the aircraft main and APU (Auxiliary Power Unit) batteries are located, and, at this stage, there is no evidence of a direct causal relationship.

This appears to rule out the APU as a source of the fire as well as confirming Airchive’s earlier reporting that the lithium-ion batteries are not involved.

Update 5: Saturday July 13, 12:25 E.S.T.


 

The NTSB has sent investigator Lorenda Ward to assist in the investigation. See the following press release from the NTSB.

The National Transportation Safety Board has sent investigators to assist in the investigation of a fire that occurred yesterday aboard a parked Boeing 787 Dreamliner at Heathrow Airport, London, England. NTSB Senior Air Safety Investigator Lorenda Ward has been appointed as the traveling U.S. accredited representative. Ms. Ward will be accompanied by NTSB airplane systems investigators and representatives from the Federal Aviation Administration and Boeing. The investigation is being conducted by the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) of the United Kingdom, which will release all information.

Speculation is of course rampant as to the cause of the incident. In addition to the coffee-maker in the galley that we already noted, experts are also pointing out that the fire could have been caused by an external ground power unit (GPU), by the auxiliary power unit (APU), or by the oxygen systems. Given the location of the damage is actually slightly forward of the galley in the crown, it has led some to rule out the galley as a source of the fire. Even more far-fetched theories such as sabotage have not been entirely ruled out either.

The following document from Boeing talks about 787 ramp operations, and could help in determining whether ground power units were responsible for the fire. From a separate Boeing 787 document.

The [electrical] system  also includes ground power receptacles for airplane servicing on the ground without the use of the APU

Ethiopian Airlines released the following statement via Facebook:

ET-AOP landed at Heathrow on 12 July 2013 after normal flight from ADD to LON. Passengers were disembarked in the morning and aircraft was cleaned. It was towed to a remote parking area as usual and parked properly with all internal and external powers switched off. After more than 8 hours smoke was detected. The incident is still under investigation.Related Stories & Galleries:

Ethiopian has no current plans to ground its 787 fleet.

We have not grounded any of our aircraft… The incident at Heathrow happened while the plane was on the ground… and was not related to flight safety.

As to why Ethiopian’s 787s weren’t outfitted with crew rests, keep in mind that Ethiopian uses its 6 Boeing 777-200LRs to operate the longest routes in its network. The 787 is used much more for high-demand, medium distance services. So it makes sense that crew rests might no be needed on the existing fleet of 4 Dreamliners. A full list of current and planned 787 services on Ethiopian can be seen below via the Airline Route blog.

  • Addis Ababa – Frankfurt (from 20th July)
  • Addis Ababa – Guangzhou (2 days only)
  • Addis Ababa – Harare – Lusaka – Addis Ababa
  • Addis Ababa – Johannesburg
  • Addis Ababa – Lagos 787 (1 day only)
  • Addis Ababa – Lome – Rio de Janeiro – Sao Paulo – Lome – Addis Ababa
  • Addis Ababa – London Heathrow (once a week via Rome)
  • Addis Ababa – Lusaka – Harare – Addis Ababa (last flight July 13th)
  • Addis Ababa – Rome – Toronto

On the Thomson mechanical issue, the issue was reportedly an electrical problem which involved the galleys and all but two of the lavatories. We are working to confirm. All 3 Thomson Airways 787s are back in the air today and performing normal service.

Update 4 – Saturday July 13, 06:50 E.S.T.


 

Reuters reports Ethiopian Airlines officials say yesterday’s 787 incident was “not related to flight safety” and will continue flying their remaining Dreamliners.

Britain’s Air Accidents Investigation Branch, which is responsible for investigating civil aviation incidents like the NTSB in the U.S., said the Ethiopian jet has been moved to a secure hangar and that a full investigation was under way. In addition to the British investigators who are leading the investigation, a team from Boeing was on site along with officials from Ethiopian Airlines and from the FAA and NTSB.

Update 3: Friday July 12, 22:45 E.S.T.


 

Reportedly, an incident occurred involving a Pakistan International Airlines 777-300ER at around 16:00 BST which engaged the Heathrow fire crew, and the combined effects of that incident and the Ethiopian fire were what caused Heathrow to be shut down. We are working to confirm.

This diagram from Boeing, showing where the 787’s batteries are located, clearly rules out the lithium ion batteries as the cause of the fire.

(Credits: Boeing)

(Credits: Boeing)

Update 2: Friday July 12, 20:19 E.S.T.


 

The following document shows the Airplane Rescue and Fire Fighting Information for the Boeing 787. The image below shows the composites breakdown of the 787.

(Credits: Boeing)

(Credits: Boeing)

The following report from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), discusses the Flammability Properties of Aircraft Carbon-Fiber Structural Composites.” The following passage from that report describes how composites burn.

The material burns in a manner similar to a charring material, in that the carbon fibers comprise most of its mass. The composite burns primarily from the vaporization of its resin. It can ignite with a pilot flame after preheating at a low heat flux. When it burns, the resin vapor is forced out of the fiber pores, and pressure causes the material to swell to over twice its volume. In most all cases studied, the composite maintained its rigidity, but its structural strength was not examined after degradation. The material appears to maintain homogeneity in swelling. The fibers create an insulating, char-like structure that causes a reduction in the internal heating, and consequently, the burning rate drops in time. As the burning rate drops, extinction can naturally occur due to insufficient heating. As is common of charring materials, external heat flux is required to sustain burning and flame spread. It should be noted that the carbon fiber can also oxidize under high-temperature conditions, and this was observed even at low heat fluxes. Furthermore, the properties in this report pertain primarily to the characteristics of the resin material, as the carbon fibers are essentially inert.

Boeing has posted an updated statement via Twitter:

Our team is on ground working in support of UK authorities & Ethiopian Airlines to determine cause of 787 event @HeathrowAirport.

Boeing shares on the New York stock exchange closed Friday at $101.87, rebounding from a low of $98.65, and down 4.7% for the day

Update 1: Friday July 12, 16:50 E.S.T.


 

This article from Reinforced Plastics Magazine details some of the challenges faced in composite repair.

Arguably, the biggest risk of all is that the structurally sound fuselage that emerges newly built from the aircraft factory can have its integrity progressively degraded over a history of successive repairs. No-one knows how many repairs of various types a fuselage can sustain before its strength is so compromised that there is a risk of failure – at worst an explosive decompression at altitude. The dreadful consequences of this became all too evident to British planemaker DeHavilland at the dawn of the passenger jet age more than half a century ago. In that case it was metal fatigue that led to the catastrophic loss of several of DH’s boldly conceived Comet aircraft. Admittedly, a composites failure is likely to be more progressive and less catastrophic, though with high-flying pressurised fuselages one can never be quite sure.

The Financial Times has reported an Ethiopian Airlines source as saying a problem had been found in the air-conditioning system eight hours earlier and that ‘sparks’ had been observed.  That report has not been verified, and lacks detail.

A problem with the air conditioning system, if caused by the 787 hardware, would spell trouble for Boeing.

Original Story – Friday July 12, 2013


 

Earlier today, flights were suspended at London Heathrow Airport [LHR] at 16:30 BST, when an Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner, registration ET-AOP,  caught on fire. The aircraft was parked at a gate after arriving at Heathrow 8 hours earlier, and was unoccupied at the time of the fire. A small amount of smoke was seen rising from the aircraft, and it was doused with fire-retardant foam from at least three vehicles. Heathrow Airport was re-opened to flight around 18:00 BST, with several flights diverting or circling the air-field during the 1 hour 30 minutes closing. Arrivals and departures from Heathrow are suffering sharp delays.

The following video shows the fire response at Heathrow from the Telegraph

http://youtu.be/_LOrlG9WtW0

At the moment, it is unclear what caused the fire. Unlike in earlier incidents involving fires from the 787’s lithium-ion batteries that grounded the 787 worldwide for more than 3 months, the damage is centered on fuselage crown above door 4 in Section 48 near the overhead crew rest area above the main cabin, though Ethiopian hasn’t configured for crew rest quarters. This location has led many aviation experts and journalists to speculate that the cause of the damage was a fire in the rear galley, or with the wiring just underneath the roof of the 787. Reportedly, the minimum temperature required to burn through the 787’s composite skin is 649 degrees Fahrenheit.

Even though the damage is inconsistent with that of the lithium-ion batteries, it still raises questions as to the safety of the Boeing 787 program. Unrelated to the Ethiopian fire at Heathrow, a Thomson Airways Dreamliner flying from Manchester (MAN) to Sanford, Florida (SFB) was forced to return to Manchester due to a technical issue. The aircraft, registered as G-TUIC was about 400 nautical miles west of Shannon, Ireland when the plane was forced to turn around. The flight returned safely to Manchester, and Thomson Airways released a statement saying:

Thomson Airways can confirm that flight TOM126 travelling from Manchester to Sanford, Florida experienced a technical issue and the aircraft returned to Manchester Airport, as a precautionary measure.

Thomson Airways Dreamliner. (Credits: Thompson Airways)

Thomson Airways Dreamliner. (Credits: Thompson Airways)

The Boeing 787 has had several technical issues even after resuming service after technical modification on April 27th, 2013. Its dispatch reliability has been below that of comparable new aircraft programs such as the Boeing 777. Every new aircraft undergoes its fair share of teething issues. But after a nearly 5 year delay before the 787s Entry Into Service (EIS), and a more than 3 month long grounding, the traveling public and airline customers might be losing patience with the 787’s safety issues.

ET-AOP, the Ethiopian 787, was actually the first aircraft to resume commercial service after the 787 grounding with a nonstop flight between Addis Ababa and Nairobi. Ethiopian Airlines has released a statement on the incident as follows:

Today on Friday, 12 July 2013, smoke was detected from Ethiopian Airlines B787 aircraft with registration number ET-AOP, which was parked at London Heathrow airport for more than eight hours. The aircraft was empty when the incident was observed. The cause of the incident is under investigation by all concerned. Ethiopian is a multi-award winning airline and a member of Star Alliance since 2011 registering an average growth of 25% in the past seven years.

Boeing also released a statement on the incident via Twitter saying:

We’re aware of the 787 event @HeathrowAirport and have Boeing personnel there. We’re working to fully understand and address this.

The American National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has already been contacted and is en-route to investigate. According to the European Aviation Safety Agency, it is too early to tell whether the 787 will be grounded again. The Ethiopian 787 now represents a massive Aircraft On Ground (AOG) challenge. Fixing the aircraft will be a good test for the healing and maintenance capabilities of the 787’s carbon fiber reinforced plastic (CFRP) materials, and has important implications for future aircraft with composite skin.

It is possible that the aircraft may have to be written off, which would represent a major blow to the Boeing 787 program, which has 930 orders plus 52 purchase commitments spread across 3 variants. It also would represent a setback for Etihiopian Airlines’ network as the East African carrier pursues its global ambitions.

dreamliner

An Ethiopian Airlines 787 Dreamliner in happier times. (Credits: Konstantin von Wedelstaedt)

While the full effects of this latest Dreamliner incident will not be known for sometime, it represents yet another headache for Boeing. The manufacturer has invested billions into the 787 program and much of its future wide-body strategy is centered around the 787 and its technology. Boeing’s share price responded negatively to the incident after hitting a new peak earlier in the day, and was down around 5% as of press time.

 

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Vinay Bhaskara

Vinay Bhaskara

Senior Business Analyst, Big Airline Enthusiast, Avid Airport Connoisseur, Frequent Flyer, Globetrotter. I Miss Northwest Airlines Every Day. vinay@airwaysmag.com @TheABVinay

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