* Different type of battery than in earlier groundings
* Honeywell says no previous experience of problems
* Boeing shares recover much of what they lost Friday
* Dreamliner flights, orders not affected
By Andrea Shalal-Esa and Alwyn Scott
WASHINGTON, July 15 Investigators are looking
into whether a fire on a Boeing Dreamliner in London last
week was caused by the battery of an emergency locator
transmitter built by Honeywell International Inc,
according to a source familiar with the probe.
Passengers and investors appeared to take the news in their
stride, as airlines continued to fly the plane and shares in the
U.S. company regained most of what they lost on Friday, closing
up 3.7 percent at $105.66 on Monday.
Honeywell said it had joined the investigation into Friday's
fire aboard the parked 787 at Heathrow airport but declined to
discuss details beyond saying it had no previous experience of
difficulties with this type of transmitter.
Boeing declined to comment on the transmitter.
In 2009, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) told
airlines that a Honeywell transmitter had failed in tests and
advised them to replace it, and other global regulators
published similar advisories. There was no indication of fire
risk from the unit.
Honeywell said it was checking whether the transmitter on
the Ethiopian Airlines jet was the same model as one
cited by regulators in 2009.
The 787 transmitter is located in the aft fuselage section
and a fire from it was "theoretically possible," said John
Hansman, an aeronautics professor at MIT who has been an adviser
to the FAA.
But Hansman said it seemed unlikely that the unit had
malfunctioned, and that it was at least as likely that a
passenger sneaked a cigarette in the lavatory and it smoldered
for hours while the plane was parked at a remote stand at
eathrow airport before bursting into flames.
Britain's Air Accident Investigations Branch (AAIB), which
is leading the probe into the fire, said on Saturday it found no
evidence the fire was caused by the lithium-ion batteries that
were implicated in the 787's grounding earlier this year.
The overheating in January of two battery packs that provide
backup power to the plane caused regulators to ground the plane
for three months and caused fleet-wide retrofits and delivery
NEW TECH PLANE
Still, the focus on the emergency beacon raised alarms for
some analysts, who said more technology problems with the new,
high-tech airliner would be troubling.
"Unless the company can say for sure that the incident is
isolated to this particular aircraft, it's not welcome news,"
said Richard Aboulafia, an aviation consultant with the
Virginia-based Teal Group.
"The one systematic problem to plague the Dreamliner is that
so many of its technologies are new that it is very difficult
for the regulators to fully grasp all the changes," he said.
Boeing only resumed deliveries of the planes in May after
one of the plane's lithium-ion batteries caught fire and another
overheated, requiring a redesign of the battery system and the
retrofitting of more than 50 planes.
The AAIB could take days if not weeks to determine the cause
of the latest fire, although a source familiar with the
investigation said an initial report could emerge this week.
Investigators are studying an emergency locator transmitter,
or ELT, which is positioned in the upper rear part of the new
airliner and sends a signal that leads rescuers to downed
aircraft, said the source, who was not authorized to speak on
Another source identified Ultralife Corp as the
supplier of the battery that powers the Honeywell ELT. Newark,
New York-based Ultralife was not immediately available for
U.S. aviation and safety officials said it was the first
time they could recall such a transmitter being investigated as
the possible cause of an airplane fire.
The emergency transmitter is powered by a non-rechargeable
lithium-manganese battery. The fact that it is not powered by a
lithium-ion battery could allay concerns about a re-occurrence
of problems that caused the earlier grounding.
Lithium-manganese batteries can be found in some flashlights,
digital cameras and military applications.
Honeywell on Monday said its ELTs have been Federal Aviation
Administration certified since 2005, are in use in numerous
types of aircraft and "we've not seen nor experienced a single
reported issue on this product-line".
The company said it is participating in the investigation
and that it was too early to draw conclusions about the cause of
the fire, which left visible scorch marks on the outer skin of
the plane. The fire occurred in an area where galley equipment
such as water boilers and heaters are also located.
"It's far too premature to speculate on the cause, or draw
conclusions," said Honeywell spokesman Nathan Drevna.
Honeywell said it had sent technical experts to London to
assist with the investigation and would continue to work closely
with Boeing and the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board.
Honeywell shares edged down slightly on Monday, closing off
seven cents at $82.30.
NO IMPACT ON FLIGHTS, ORDERS
Analysts remained cautious.
"Anything that's electronic in nature is more concerning
than ... some kind of human error," said Jason Gursky, an
analyst at Citigroup in San Francisco.
"The most important thing to keep in mind from an impact
perspective is whether this is a systemic issue, or bad
assembly, or a bad part, or somebody left the coffee pot on,"
Britain's AAIB on Saturday said it found no evidence the
fire was caused by the 787s lithium-ion batteries that were
implicated in the grounding earlier this year.
A 25-strong team of experts, including inspectors from the
AAIB and the NTSB are investigating the damaged Dreamliner in a
hangar at Heathrow airport, some 15 miles west of central
London. The FAA and Boeing also are helping in the
Airlines, including Ethiopian Airlines, Britain's Thomson
Airways, U.S. carrier United Continental, and
Poland's LOT, said they would continue to fly their
Dreamliners, while others, such as Virgin Atlantic said
they would stick to their plans to buy the aircraft.
"Personally I'd fly on a Dreamliner tomorrow - I don't think
it's a problem for the whole fleet like the battery issue
clearly was," said Howard Wheeldon, an aerospace analyst at
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory.
"I'd expect the AAIB to know what caused the fire by the end
of this week but the question for Boeing and Ethiopian Airlines
is 'is the plane repairable'?"