Tokyo: Japan’s two leading airlines grounded their fleets of Boeing 787s on Wednesday after one of the Dreamliner passenger jets made an emergency landing, the latest in a series of incidents to heighten safety concerns over a plane many see as the future of commercial aviation.
State-owned Air India Ltd, also one of the launch customers for the 787, said Dreamliner flights will continue. Officials said Air India’s six 787 planes haven’t faced any incident that warranted their grounding. The Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), the Indian regulator, has meanwhile set up a team to study issues facing the plane.
Although Air India’s engineers are said to be “happy” with the Dreamliner, ministry officials who didn’t want to be named said their attention had been drawn to issues with its doors. Aviation minister Ajit Singh told reporters the 787 hadn’t posed any problems for Air India.
One of the planes destined for Air India had an engine failure before it was delivered while on the ground at Charleston in the US in July last year.
All Nippon Airways Co. Ltd (ANA) said instruments aboard a domestic flight indicated a battery error, triggering emergency warnings to the pilots. Shigeru Takano, a senior safety official at the civil aviation bureau, said a second warning light indicated smoke.
Wednesday’s incident, described by a transport ministry official as “highly serious”—language used in international safety circles as indicating there could have been an accident—is the latest in a line of mishaps—fuel leaks, a battery fire, wiring problem, brake computer glitch and cracked cockpit window—to hit the world’s first mainly carbon-composite airliner in recent days.
“I think you’re nearing the tipping point where they need to regard this as a serious crisis,” said Richard Aboulafia, a senior analyst with the Teal Group in Fairfax, Virginia. “This is going to change people’s perception of the aircraft if they don’t act quickly.”
ANA, which said the battery in the forward cargo hold was the same lithium-ion type as the one involved in a fire on another Dreamliner at a US airport last week, grounded all 17 of its 787s, and Japan Airlines Co. Ltd (JAL) suspended its 787 flights scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday. ANA and JAL said they will decide on Thursday whether to resume Dreamliner flights the following day. ANA and JAL operate around half of the 50 Dreamliners delivered by Boeing to date.
The 787, which has a list price of $207 million, represents a leap in the way the 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 strenuously denies.
Both the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said they were monitoring the latest incident as part of a comprehensive review of the Dreamliner announced late last week.
In Asia, only the Japanese and Air India have the Dreamliner in service, but other airlines are among those globally to have ordered around 850 of the new aircraft.
Australia’s Qantas Airways Ltd said its order for 15 Dreamliners remained on track, with its Jetstar subsidiary due to take delivery of the first of the aircraft in the second half of this year.
India’s regulator said it would wait for a safety report from Boeing, expected later on Wednesday, before deciding on Thursday whether to ground the six Dreamliners operated by state-owned Air India. “We have formed a small team and are having discussions with Boeing as well as Air India, and working out the basic problems to the basic electrical systems, and then we’ll take a final call on this,” Arun Mishra, director general of civil aviation told reporters.
K.M. Unni, strategic business unit head, airframe maintenance, repair and overhaul, Air India, said, “The Dreamliner fleet of Air India is doing well. Besides Air India, United Airlines and Qatar Airways are also flying Dreamliners successfully. However, we have decided to beef up the examinations in partnership with Boeing.”
The regulator hasn’t asked Air India to stop flying the plane, Unni said.
“As far as we know, the problem with Japanese Airlines is from the main battery and battery from auxiliary power unit. We are enhancing inspections in these area as well. We will send a detailed action report to DGCA,” Unni said.
Unni added that all Dreamliner planes are flying on schedule.
Air India has ordered 27 Dreamliners that will be delivered by March 2016. It will take delivery of two more by March to bring the total to eight.
The 787s are key to debt-laden Air India’s turnaround plan as they use 15% less fuel than aircraft in the same class, the Airbus A330, and 30% less than Boeing 777 planes.
The Dreamliner’s problems echo those of rival Airbus SAS, which a year ago survived a crisis of public confidence after a series of incidents with wing cracks on its A380, the world’s largest passenger jet. Those problems tested the manufacturer’s relations with airlines, but no plane orders were cancelled.
The use of new battery technology is among the cost-saving features of the 787, which Boeing says burns 20% less fuel than rival jets 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 Signet, told reporters last Wednesday. He said then that lithium-ion was not the only choice of battery, but “it was the right choice”.
Japan’s transport minister on Tuesday acknowledged that passenger confidence in the Dreamliner was at stake, as both Japan and the US have opened broad investigations into the plane after the recent incidents.
The 787 is Boeing’s first new jet in more than a decade, and the firm’s fortunes are largely tied to its success. The plane offers airlines unprecedented fuel economy, but the huge investment to develop it, coupled with years of delay in delivery, has caused headaches for customers, hurt Boeing financially, and created a delivery bottleneck.
Boeing has said it will at least break even on the cost of building the 1,100 new 787s it expects to deliver over the next decade.
Analysts, however, say Boeing may never make money from the plane, given its enormous development cost. Additional costs from fixing problems discovered by the string of incidents will affect those forecasts, and could hit Boeing’s bottom line more quickly if it has to stop delivering planes, analysts said. Reuters
Mint’s P.R. Sanjai in Mumbai and Tarun Shukla in New Delhi contributed to this story.