Home / Companies / News /  Air India not to roll back Boeing 787 expansion for now

New Delhi: Air India Ltd will not immediately cancel or curtail its order of 27 Dreamliner 787 aircraft made by Boeing Co., but will closely monitor developments after an Ethiopian Airlines 787 plane caught fire at London’s Heathrow Airport on Friday.

There are no plans to roll back the expansion “at the moment", Air India chairman and managing director Rohit Nandan said. “We are following all precautions," he added. The firm has started commercial flights with seven Dreamliners and seven more are expected to join its fleet this fiscal year.

Boeing’s latest jet has been dogged by controversy since commercial flights started in October 2011. The entire global fleet was grounded in January after batteries in some of the aircraft caught fire. Boeing in April said it had identified and rectified the problem.

India’s aviation regulator has asked Air India to remain vigilant in the matter. The Heathrow fire was not due to a battery malfunction, said Arun Mishra, director general of civil aviation, adding that he can take any action only after an investigation report is made available.

The regulator and the flag carrier should be taking more steps to ensure there are no problems regarding the Dreamliners, airline officials and experts said.

“I don’t know what India has done but what they should have done is contacted AAIB (Air Accident Investigation Board) of the UK immediately as well as NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board), and taken their inputs," said Mohan Ranganthan, an aviation analyst and member of the government-appointed air safety council for India. “For me, what is of concern is the burnt-out portion of the roof section. The carbon fibre is supposed to be more fire resistant, but what happened throws some doubt on it," he said.

“It is sad to see so much celebrations around Dreamliner when it is turning out to be a nightmare to all those connected to it," an Air India official said, requesting anonymity.

“There are still minor glitches that occur every day. It’s just that they don’t result in flight cancellations," this official said, adding that the glitches involve weather radar failures, and autopilot and flight management system malfunctions.

Boeing’s shares on Friday fell the most in two years, after the fire on a parked 787 operated by Ethiopian Airlines Enterprise was put out at Heathrow. No one was on board and there were no injuries.

The global fleet of Dreamliners was stopped from flying in January after the melting of lithium-ion batteries on two its planes after the Japanese regulator initiated the grounding.

The Air India official quoted above said it would be a setback for the Boeing aircraft programme if the Heathrow investigation shows it’s a hull loss rather than just a repairable hole in the damaged aircraft.

Air India officials met the country’s aviation regulator on Monday to appraise it of the issues, where it was decided that no internal advisory on the matter of the 787 fire will be issued, a second Air India official said, also declining to be named.

As an immediate measure, all Air India Dreamliners will be always manned by at least one engineer, the second executive said. This was earlier looked after by the security staff. More steps like briefing the crew are in the pipeline, this official said.

Air India has 125 aircraft in its fleet that fly to at least 90 international and domestic destinations. Air India is also going ahead with launching Dreamliner flights in August to Birmingham in the UK and Sydney and Melbourne in Australia from Delhi. It now flies these planes to Rome and Milan in Italy. The airline has just announced 50,000 return economy fares to Australian destinations.

Air India should not go all out on expansion given the current mood, the second executive said. “Hold the deliveries till the time all issues are not sorted out and teething problems resolved," he said. “Till then expansion should be curtailed. And Boeing should take steps to instill passenger confidence and be asked to pay for the loss of passenger confidence."

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