Airlines insist they'll stick with Boeing Dreamliner after fire

LONDON Sun Jul 14, 2013 9:23am EDT

Emergency services attend to a Boeing 787 Dreamliner, operated by Ethiopian Airlines, after it caught fire at Britain's Heathrow airport in west London July 12, 2013. REUTERS/Toby Melville

Emergency services attend to a Boeing 787 Dreamliner, operated by Ethiopian Airlines, after it caught fire at Britain's Heathrow airport in west London July 12, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Toby Melville

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LONDON (Reuters) - Airlines expressed confidence in the safety of Boeing's 787 Dreamliner on Sunday as investigators searched for the cause of a fire on one of the advanced jets and billions were wiped off the company's market value.

British officials said initial checks into what they called a serious incident appeared to rule out any link to the battery-related problems that grounded the Dreamliner fleet for three months earlier this year.

The fire on the Ethiopian Airlines plane at Heathrow Airport in London and a separate technical problem on a second 787 owned by Britain's Thomson Airways on Friday raised new questions about an aircraft seen as crucial to Boeing's future.

The incidents were a setback for a company trying to rebuild confidence in its flagship jet and compete with Airbus in the booming market for more fuel-efficient long-distance planes.

Britain's Tui Travel, which owns six European airlines including Thomson Airways, said its plane turned back during a flight from England to Florida and had a small number of unspecified components replaced. The parts were unrelated to the battery, it said.

"We want to reassure our customers that we have every confidence in this aircraft and would never operate it if we weren't 100 percent sure of its safety," a TUI Travel spokeswoman said.

No one was injured in the fire on the empty Ethiopian Airlines plane, which was parked at Heathrow. However, it closed Britain's busiest airport for 90 minutes.

Britain's Air Accident Investigations Branch (AAIB), part of the Department for Transport, said the damaged Ethiopian Airlines plane was being examined in a hangar at Heathrow.

Boeing shares closed down 4.7 percent at $101.87 on Friday after the Heathrow fire, knocking $3.8 billion off the company's market capitalization.


In the early stages of the investigation, airlines said they would continue to fly their Dreamliners, while others confirmed they would stick to their plans to buy the aircraft.

Virgin Atlantic said it remained committed to taking delivery of 16 of the planes from the autumn of 2014. Delta Air Lines is buying a 49 percent stake in the airline.

"We are confident that Boeing and the relevant authorities are working hard to ensure that the appropriate action is being taken," Virgin said in a statement.

Polish flag carrier LOT, the first European airline to take delivery of the 787 last year, said it was in constant contact with Boeing.

Boeing will be keen to reassure airlines, travelers and investors over the cause of the fire as quickly as possible but under aviation rules it will be up to investigators to decide how much information to release and when.

Boeing said it had people on the ground working to understand the causes of the fire. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration said it was in contact with Boeing.

Britain's AAIB said on Saturday there was extensive heat damage in the upper portion of the rear fuselage. The damage was far from the batteries and "there is no direct evidence of a direct causal relationship", it said.

(Additional reporting by Chris Borowski in Warsaw; Editing by Andrew Roche)

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Comments (19)
Whatever the fire cause, there are some vital questions at the forefront:

1. How vulnerable is the carbon-fiber composite material to heat and fire – vs. comparable traditional aluminum hull aircraft?

2. What potential is there for high-load electrical wires or “wire bundles” to do catastrophic damage to the carbon-fiber composite material – particularly to the fuselage outer skin – in contrast to the sheet metal design of aluminum hull aircraft?

3. How vulnerable is the fuselage to catastrophic failure; due to pressurization – with respect to heat and fire; compared to the ‘traditional’ aluminum structure design?

4. How much structural “strength” loss is the carbon-fiber composite material subject to; compared to the ‘traditional’ conventional aluminum design?

5. Is the carbon-fiber composite material outer ‘skin’ design as resistant to “tearing” damage as the ‘traditional’ conventional aluminum counterpart?

6. What repair methods/techniques are available to the carbon-fiber composite material – at what cost?

7. Is a fire (or any comparable damage) capable of mandating (highly expensive) major fuselage sections being replaced – as opposed to a repair technique comparable to a sheet metal repair on aluminum hull aircraft?

8. What is the risk from fumes/smoke of the burning carbon-fiber composite material to people?

Jul 13, 2013 9:12pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
mark_annand wrote:
The scorch marks on the top of the Ethiopian Airways 787 fuselage appear to be located immediately above the air crew loft used for resting and sleeping during long flights. Is it possible some heat generating electrical device was left running in this area when staff left the plane?. Eight hours seems like enough time for heat to build up and cause combustion.

Jul 13, 2013 9:46pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
metadata wrote:
This is even worse for Boeing because it indicates there are other life threatening issues with its Dreamliners than batteries.

Batteries are the red herring masking more serious problems that could cause Dreamliners to eventually catch fire in flight. The runway episode was just a dry run and Boeing has a serious problem now they’ve ruled out batteries without knowing the real cause.

Jul 13, 2013 9:55pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
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