US orders Dreamliner beacon probe after Heathrow fire

Federal Aviation Administration asks Dreamliner operators to check emergency radio transmitters for wire damage
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First Published: Sat, Jul 20 2013. 09 24 PM IST
A Boeing 787 Dreamliner operated by Ethiopian Airlines caught fire at Britain’s Heathrow airport in west London on 12 July. Photo: Reuters
A Boeing 787 Dreamliner operated by Ethiopian Airlines caught fire at Britain’s Heathrow airport in west London on 12 July. Photo: Reuters
Washington/Chicago: US regulators have ordered Boeing Co. 787 Dreamliner operators to check emergency radio transmitters for wire damage after a beacon was linked to the 12 July fire on one of the jets in London.
“The Federal Aviation Administration is working with Chicago-based Boeing to develop instructions for the inspections, which will be made mandatory through an airworthiness directive to be issued in the coming days,” the agency said in a statement on Friday. “Operators will be told to ensure wire routing is proper, seek any signs of wire damage or pinching and search for heating or moisture within the devices’ battery compartment,” the FAA said.
The move falls short of the UK Air Accidents Investigation Branch’s recommendation that the FAA direct airlines to disable the Honeywell International Inc. beacons on all 787s. The FAA said that it will communicate its plan to aviation safety regulators in other countries this weekend.
The directive would apply only to the six 787s flown by United Continental Holdings Inc. since no other US carrier operates the jet. Other nations’ aviation regulators typically follow the agency’s lead, as they did in January when the FAA grounded the aircraft after lithium-ion batteries melted down in two 787s’ power systems.
“We received the recommendation from the AAIB and are working closely with Boeing and the FAA to ensure we take the appropriate action,” Christen David, a spokeswoman for Chicago-based United, said by telephone on Friday prior to the FAA’s announcement. “We have already performed visual checks on the emergency locator transmitters with no findings.”
Composite skin
Operators of the 68 Dreamliners in service have been grappling with how to respond to a blaze that scorched the composite skin of an Ethiopian Airlines Enterprise 787, which was parked at London’s Heathrow airport with its ground power switched off.
“Officials investigating the fire are concentrating on a possible pinched wire in the emergency beacon,” Reuters said, citing unidentified people familiar with the probe. “A pinched wire in the transmitter had been found,” Reuters said, adding that “officials are also studying whether condensation seeped into the transmitter”.
Removal approved
“Japan’s transport ministry will allow removal of the emergency beacons from Dreamliners, and the use of portable beacons in place of the Honeywell devices,” Megumi Tezuka, a spokeswoman at ANA Holdings Inc., the biggest 787 operator, said on Saturday in an email.
Kyodo News earlier reported the ministry’s decision.
Japanese aviation law requires emergency transmitters to be in service. An inspection of ANA’s 20-jet Dreamliner fleet didn’t uncover any issues, Nao Gunji, a spokeswoman said earlier in a telephone interview, she added.
The carrier had said that if the FAA had ordered the removal of the components and Boeing issued a directive, the carrier would do so once Japan’s transport ministry published a decree.
Poland’s LOT said it has made checks and the part is fine. UK charter carrier Thomson Airways removed the Honeywell locators within hours.
“UK regulators continue to probe whether an electrical short or other mechanism sparked the Ethiopian Airlines fire,” the AAIB said on 18 July. It has determined that an emergency locator transmitter powered by lithium batteries contained the only stored energy capable of starting a blaze within the area of heat damage.
Radar coverage
The beacons are used to track downed aircraft and planes operating across oceans where there is no radar coverage. “They are placed on planes for a reason,” said Robert Mann, an aviation consultant based in Port Washington, New York. “These do provide a real function and safety net in real time.”
The FAA said on Friday that it does not require the transmitters to be on large commercial aircraft.
In Europe, the device is part of a minimum equipment list maintained by the European Aviation Safety Agency and can be temporarily deactivated for maintenance while the aircraft continue to fly, Richard Taylor, a spokesman for the UK Civil Aviation Authority, said in an email.
India’s aviation safety regulator will make a decision after Air India Ltd—which operates seven 787s—receives a directive from Boeing, Arun Mishra, director general of civil aviation, said in an earlier phone interview on Friday.
Boeing has “provided instructions to customers giving them the required information to meet their regulatory guidelines,” Marc Birtel, a Boeing spokesman said in an email. “This includes either the inspection or removal of the ELT on affected airplanes, as dictated by local operational requirements.” BLOOMBERG
Mary Jane Credeur in Atlanta, Jennifer Surane in New York, Robert Wall in London, Chris Cooper in Tokyo and Karthikeyan Sundaram in New Delhi contributed to this story.
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First Published: Sat, Jul 20 2013. 09 24 PM IST
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