Just two months after Boeing seemed to have left the problems with its 787 Dreamliner behind, it suffered another setback on Friday, when a fire broke out inside an Ethiopian Airlines 787 parked at Heathrow Airport in London.
It was not immediately clear what caused the fire or how serious the repercussions would be. But investors, mindful that hazards with the jet’s batteries had led to the grounding of the entire fleet from January to April, reacted nervously, sending Boeing’s shares down 4.7 percent.
Smoke came from the plane, named the Queen of Sheba, eight hours after it had been parked in a remote space at Heathrow and about four and a half hours before it was scheduled to depart for Ethiopia. No passengers were on the plane, which was connected to an external ground power source, according to people briefed on the incident.
It was also not clear if any maintenance was under way or how long the fire had been burning, though it was intense enough to burn through its carbon-composite skin on the top of the fuselage near the tail.
That area was not next to either of the plane’s new lithium-ion batteries, which caught fire or emitted smoke in two earlier incidents that led to the grounding of the first 50 787s. Unless they were charging, aviation experts said, the batteries would not have been in use if the plane were connected to ground power.
A team of British safety investigators began examining the plane shortly after the fire was put out. But no one involved — the investigators, Boeing, the airline or the airport — commented on the possible cause of the fire.
Other experts said that some of the plane’s wiring, and the oxygen systems for passengers, would have passed through the damaged area, which was above the rear galley. It was also possible the fire migrated from another part of the plane, they said.
Richard L. Aboulafia, an aviation consultant at the Teal Group in Fairfax, Va., said the possibilities ranged from “something pretty benign,” like a lit cigarette or a coffee machine left on, to a serious flaw in the plane’s new electrical system, which includes other innovative components besides the batteries. Or, he said, it could be something “not as easy or as terrible,” like a component that was installed incorrectly.
The Heathrow incident was not the only problem aboard a 787 on Friday. Thomson Airways, a charter airline, said that one of its Dreamliner planes traveling from Manchester Airport in England to Orlando-Sanford International Airport in Florida had to turn back “as a precautionary measure.”
The fire on the Ethiopian 787 forced Heathrow Airport to temporarily suspend arrivals and departures while fire crews responded to the incident at 4:36 p.m. local time. Once the fire was extinguished around 6 p.m., the runways reopened.
Friday’s incidents took place about two months after the 787 Dreamliners returned to the skies after being grounded over the battery problems. One of the new lithium-ion batteries caught fire on a 787 parked at a Boston airport on Jan. 7, and another began smoking in midflight nine days later, forcing a 787 to make an emergency landing in Japan.
Regulators lifted the grounding orders after Boeing came up with a plan to refit the first 50 to 60 of the new jets with more insulation between the battery cells and a new system for venting smoke or hazardous gases out of the planes. Ethiopian Airlines has four 787s, and the one that had the fire at Heathrow was the first 787 to return to service at any airline after the grounding ended.
Boeing said that while the planes were grounded, it also made changes in electrical components that had failed on occasion since the planes began to fly in late 2011.
At Heathrow, television video and photographs showed fire damage near the base of the vertical stabilizer, with fire-retardant foam having been sprayed on the area. That would be the first time a fire had burned through the 787’s carbon-composite skin, raising questions about its fire-retardant properties.
But most of the electrical panels and generators are in the center of the plane, below the passenger floor. That is also where one of the two lithium-ion batteries is situated. The second is under the cockpit.
In Washington, the National Transportation Safety Board said it would send an investigator to Britain to inspect the Ethiopian plane.
Boeing has delivered 66 787s so far, with orders totaling 930 planes.
Uncertainty over the cause of the fire could make passengers more reluctant to fly on a new plane, or lead some airlines to delay or defer their 787 orders. Aviation analysts said that Boeing’s battery problems had cost it hundreds of millions of dollars.
For Boeing, the 787’s systems represent a significant advancement in technology. To reduce weight and improve the plane’s efficiency, for example, Boeing replaced many of the traditional pneumatic systems with electrical ones that do not rely on bleed air from the engines.
The 787 has six electrical power generators — including two that are near the rear of the plane, linked to the auxiliary power generator, and two on each of the plane’s two engines. These generators provide power to the plane’s electrical systems in flight, including the flight deck displays, flight controls and in-flight entertainment. The system is more efficient because it reduces the drag on the engines, and it generates less noise. During flight, the four engine generators are the primary sources of electrical power. The auxiliary power unit is a small jet engine that is used to produce power while on the ground if the plane is not connected to an external power source.
The 787 has also had a history of other mishaps since entering service in November 2011. Several airlines, including United Airlines, the sole American operator so far, Qatar Airways and All Nippon Airlines, have been forced to divert flights because of electrical problems or out of an abundance of caution given the limited experience pilots and crew have with the new plane.
Despite these problems, though, airlines have eagerly anticipated the plane, which has cut fuel costs by 20 percent.
Airbus, Boeing’s big European rival, is also planning its own carbon-fiber airplane, the A350, which is scheduled to enter service sometime next year.
Source: New York Times