Update 1: Air India grounds its Boeing 787 Dreamliner fleet, after FAA emergency directive

by Devesh Agarwal

The fleet of six Boeing 787-8 Dreamliners of state-owned national carrier Air India has been grounded by the country’s aviation regulator the DGCA, which took this decision following the issue of an Emergency Airworthiness Directive (EAD) by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) the regulator in the country of manufacture, and also the certifying body of the aircraft. The EAD concerns risks of fire in the aircraft’s Lithium-ion batteries.

(Read the FAA Press Release here).

(You can read the FAA Emergency AD at the end of this article, or download it here).

Air India operates three international routes (Dubai, Frankfurt and Paris Roissy), and three domestic services (Bangalore, Chennai, and Kolkata), all from its base in New Delhi. One aircraft is used as a stand-by.

An Air India spokesperson informed Bangalore Aviation the airline is making “alternate arrangements” including changing of aircraft type on some routes, and “arrangements” for affected passengers, but refused to elaborate. The airline has also not issued any statement on the 787.

The FAA EAD comes after multiple incidents which afflicted Boeing’s newest generation aircraft in the last few weeks. A United Airlines Boeing 787-8 was diverted near New Orleans on December 4, 2012. On December 8, a Qatar Airways 787 reported a generator failure. On January 7, a Japan Airlines 787 suffered an APU battery fire at Boston. On January 11, another ANA Dreamliner suffered a cracked wind-shield while on a domestic flight. Air India’s debut flights were marred by air-conditioning pack failures. The other three operators Chile’s LAN, Ethiopian Airlines, and LOT Polish Airlines have not reported any incidents with the 787.

In addition to United Airlines, and Air India, the two Japanese carriers, All Nippon Airways (ANA) and Japan Airlines (JAL), the first two operators of the 787, who operate almost 50% of the global 787 fleet (24 out of 50), grounded their fleets yesterday. LAN confirmed it is suspending 787 flights on advice of Chile’s aviation regulator. The airline issued a statement

“In compliance with the recommendation of the Federal Aviation Administration of the United States (FAA) and in coordination with the Chilean Aeronautical Authority (DGAC), LAN announces that we will temporarily suspend the operation of our three Boeing 787 aircraft.

“Flights that were scheduled to be operated by the 787 will be temporarily replaced with other aircraft in our fleet to mitigate any potential impact that this situation could cause our passengers and cargo clients. The safety of our operation and our passengers is our top priority and we lament any inconvenience that this may cause.”

LOT have cancelled their launch event for their Warsaw Chicago service. The decisions of Qatar and Ethiopian are awaited, though it is expected they will follow suit.

Boeing reimposed faith in the safety of its aircraft. Chairman, President and CEO Jim McNerney issued the following statement following the FAA’s EAD.

“The safety of passengers and crew members who fly aboard Boeing airplanes is our highest priority.

“Boeing is committed to supporting the FAA and finding answers as quickly as possible. The company is working around the clock with its customers and the various regulatory and investigative authorities. We will make available the entire resources of The Boeing Company to assist.

“We are confident the 787 is safe and we stand behind its overall integrity. We will be taking every necessary step in the coming days to assure our customers and the traveling public of the 787’s safety and to return the airplanes to service.

“Boeing deeply regrets the impact that recent events have had on the operating schedules of our customers and the inconvenience to them and their passengers.”

A DC-10-40 modified to perform as a tanker.

The Federal Aviation Administration does not enjoy the same reputation of independence as the NTSB, due to its contradicting roles of a regulator and a promoter of aviation. One has to go back 34 years to 1979, to find the last time the FAA issued an EAD on an aircraft. That was the McDonnell Douglas DC-10, following the horrific crash at Chicago of an American Airlines DC-10. In an ironic twist of history, the travelling public lost faith in the DC-10, and McDonnell Douglas never recovered from this disaster. It eventually went bankrupt, and was acquired by Boeing.

In no way do we imply the 787 is an unsafe aircraft, and we are confident the efforts of Boeing and its vendors will find a solution; but, speed is of the essence. Through its EAD the FAA and by extension other regulators will require operators (airlines) to prove that the batteries on their 787s are safe.

Unlike earlier generation aircraft, the 787 relies on greater electrical power to perform aircraft functions traditionally performed by hydraulic means. As a result it has a greater usage of batteries. While Lithium-ion batteries similar to the type used in the 787 are fairly common in the aerospace industry, the groundings will put tremendous pressure on both Boeing, and the battery manufacturer GS Yuasa of Japan, to examine their entire value chain, from design, to manufacturing, to quality control, determine reasons for the failures and find solutions, quickly.

Boeing has not indicated it will stop or suspend production of the 787. In fact the 100th 787 just entered the production line recently. However, while Boeing can assemble 787s it cannot fly them and therefore cannot conduct any test flights. The flight lines at both the Everett and Charleston plants will start filling up soon.

While the seriousness of the battery problems are not fully known, and therefore a time-frame for implementing a solution is elusive right now, Boeing has to keep history in mind. The DC-10 grounding in 1979 lasted over a month. In today’s day and age neither Boeing nor Yuasa can afford this, especially after over three years of delay plaguing this fine aircraft.

Share your thoughts via a comment.

Update 1: 787 Interim Replacement Plan

Through January 22nd, Air India has implemented the following replacement plan for segments previously scheduled to be operated by the Boeing 787 Dreamliner:

Delhi – Chennai/Bangalore will be operated with the Airbus A330-200. Since the A330s are already based in Chennai to fly Chennai-Singapore, the aircraft which operates the night flight to Chennai will be rotated through Delhi for domestic flights during the day.

Delhi – Kolkata/Dubai will be operated by Boeing 747-400s which are currently used as spare aircraft for maintenance substitutions and charters.

Delhi – Paris Charles de Gaulle will be operated by a spare Boeing 777-200LR.

Delhi – Frankfurt will be operated by a spare Boeing 777-300ER.

US Federal Aviation Administration Emergency AD # 2103-02-51 787 Battery

About Devesh Agarwal

A electronics and automotive product management, marketing and branding expert, he was awarded a silver medal at the Lockheed Martin innovation competition 2010. He is ranked 6th on Mashable's list of aviation pros on Twitter and in addition to Bangalore Aviation, he has contributed to leading publications like Aviation Week, Conde Nast Traveller India, The Economic Times, and The Mint (a Wall Street Journal content partner). He remains a frequent flier and shares the good, the bad, and the ugly about the Indian aviation industry without fear or favour.

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