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Snag stalls Boeing 787 delivery to Air India

Fault found in transformer rectifier unit that powers cockpit display, other critical functions
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First Published: Wed, Jul 31 2013. 12 07 AM IST
The Dreamliner, Air India’s eighth, had been scheduled to arrive in India on 31 August. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
The Dreamliner, Air India’s eighth, had been scheduled to arrive in India on 31 August. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
Updated: Wed, Jul 31 2013. 06 48 PM IST
New Delhi: A Dreamliner scheduled for delivery to Air India Ltd is stuck in the US over a snag, adding to the litany of faults associated with Boeing Co. ’s 787s, planes built with cutting-edge technology that were grounded for five months earlier this year after battery fires.
The Dreamliner, Air India’s eighth, had been scheduled to arrive in India on Wednesday. The plane with the registration VT-ANN was to have left the US on Tuesday.
The snag was uncovered during a so-called “customer-acceptance flight”, said a person aware of the development who declined to be named. The fault was in the transformer rectifier unit which powers the cockpit display and other critical functions, including the brakes, said the person.
Boeing is doing a complete replacement of the P300 panel on the aircraft. There would be a test flight and then it will come here if all goes well,” said this person.
The fuel-efficient Dreamliner uses lighter composite materials and depends much more heavily on electrical power than older planes.
“The integrity of the systems should have been impeccable,” said the person cited above, who said the Dreamliner delays were hurting Air India’s expansions plans that are crucial to its revival strategy and raising questions over reliability.
An Air India spokesman said the incident had occurred and the airline will take all necessary action to maintain high safety standards.
“We are in the process of taking delivery of the 787 aircraft. The delivery acceptance team is already in Seattle,” the spokesman said late on Tuesday. “The snags will keep appearing on an aircraft, but appropriate rectification action will be done and that is the purpose of the acceptance team to be in Seattle.”
Emails sent to Boeing seeking comments did not elicit any response until the time of going to press.
State-owned Air India bought Dreamliners worth $6 billion (around Rs.35,880 crore today) from Boeing under the leadership of then civil aviation minister Praful Patel, placing the orders in 2005. The debt-laden airline is itself in the midst of a government bailout with taxpayer funds worth at least $5 billion after reaching near bankruptcy in the past six years.
A safety expert said the Dreamliner faults were not a good sign.
“This is not comfortable that a brand new aircraft has this snag in such a vital area,” said Mohan Ranganathan, a member of the Indian government-appointed air safety council. “The 787 is an all-electric aircraft. The rate at which systems are packing up in vital areas raises concern. Air India should take the assistance of experts in the field. NTSB and AAIB may be able to provide expert advice as the 787 is under the scanner now.”
The National Transportation Safety Board, or NTSB, investigates crashes in the US while the Air Accidents Investigation Branch, or AAIB, does so in the UK.
The risk factor is enhanced by India’s dusty environment.
“The Indian environment is not conducive to electronic/electrical systems, which require a dust-free environment. If systems fail in areas which are dust-free, the chances of failures are lot more in India. A thorough examination of the system is required and not blind acceptance in a rush to bring the aircraft by Air India,” Ranganathan said.
SpiceJet Ltd’s departing chief executive officer Neil Mills said in a 16 July interview that such factors were leading to engines having to be overhauled ahead of schedule. The airline flies Boeing 737s.
The 787 jet has been dogged by controversy since commercial flights started in October 2011, with the biggest blow being the global grounding in January after batteries in some of the aircraft caught fire. Boeing said in April that it had identified and rectified the problem.
It was allowed to resume flights in May after a redesign added more protection around individual cells to contain overheating, a steel case to prevent fire and a tube to vent fumes outside the fuselage.
After that came an incident on 12 July in which a fire broke out on a Dreamliner on the ground at London’s Heathrow airport. The fire in the Ethiopian Airlines plane occurred in the rear.
The Heathrow airport fire, which made a hole in the stationary Ethiopian Airlines aircraft, was traced to a likely problem with the emergency locator transmitter (ELT), used to find a plane in case it crashes in a remote area. US regulator Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Boeing asked that all ELTs be disabled until the cause of the fire was ascertained and an investigation completed.
On 25 July, one of Air India’s new Dreamliners (registration VT-ANL) had a fire in the rear galley area on a flight from Delhi to Kolkata that was doused by the crew using fire extinguishers. The fire emanated from the oven area, according to an official aware of the incident.
Qatar Airways said on Saturday that one of its 787s had been grounded since last Monday because of a minor technical problem, without giving further details.
“First, it started with fire under the belly. Then it moved to the tail and roof. It moved to the ovens and now the cockpit. This raises concerns if the aircraft was prematurely allowed commercial flights,” said Ranganathan.
Air India has 125 aircraft that fly to at least 90 international and domestic destinations. The airline sees the Dreamliners as its best bet to revive international operations.
The airline is meanwhile going ahead with securing funds as part of its purchase plan, having taken a $450-500 million bridge loan from Deutsche Bank and Investec Bank for five Boeing Dreamliners in July.
“If these kind of events take place, it can create an element of fear in the travelling public, which is the last thing that should happen,” former Air India executive director Jitender Bhargava said.
India’s aviation regulator, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), is unlikely to initiate unilateral action, he said.
“My feeling is DGCA will only take a call when another airlines, FAA or Boeing issue directions,” Bhargava said.
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First Published: Wed, Jul 31 2013. 12 07 AM IST
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