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Opinion: After Ethiopian Airlines incident at Heathrow Airport; 787 remains safe

by Vinay Bhaskara

Last Friday, a pair of incidents occurred with the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Smoke was observed billowing from an Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 787 parked on the ground at London Heathrow International Airport with no passengers on board, while a Thomson Airways Dreamliner operating between Manchester and Sanford, Florida (SFB) was forced to return to Manchester due to a routine maintenance problem.

Turning first to the Ethiopian 787, the facts are as follow:

Around 16:30 B.S.T, the Ethiopian 787, registration ET-AOP, was observed with smoke billowing throughout the aircraft. Fire response crews at Heathrow rushed to the aircraft and doused it with fire retardant foam from at least 3 vehicles

787 damage at Heathrow Airport – via Sky News

There was significant smoke/fire damage to the carbon fiber reinforced polymer (CFRP) skin of the Ethiopian 787, in the crown of the fuselage just forward of door 4 (the aft door). The damage was in a different location than that caused by the issues with the 787’s lithium-ion batteries that caused the Dreamliner to be grounded worldwide for more than 3 months. In fact, the British Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) has ruled out a direct causal relationship between the 787’s batteries and/or auxiliary power unit (APU) and the fire damage. The graphic below from Boeing shows that the damage from the 787 batteries occurred in a different location entirely.

Graphic showing location of 787 batteries – Image Credit: Boeing

The 787 was on Fixed Electrical Ground Power (FEGP) at the time of the incident. A report in the Financial Times quoted an Ethiopian Airlines source as stating that a problem had been observed in the aircraft’s air-conditioning system, and that “sparks were observed,” but this report has not been corroborated anywhere else. The 787’s aft ceiling contains Remote Data Concentrators (RDCs) and Remote Power Distribution Units (RPDUs) with significant amounts of wire, and there is a galley station (but no crew rest) beneath the section of the roof where damage occurred.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), European Air and Space Agency (EASA), AAIB, Boeing, and Ethiopian are all investigating the incident. The damage represents a massive aircraft on ground (AOG) challenge, and a good testing case for composites repair, which presents its own set of challenges (find more information on composite repair here). The cause of the damage is unknown at this point.

These are the facts we know; full stop.

All of the speculation about design problems with the 787 and maintenance issues is exactly that, speculation.

For their part, Boeing, Ethiopian Airlines, and (importantly) the assorted aviation safety agencies are all treating this as a one-off event. Ethiopian Airlines issued a statement saying that the incident was “unrelated to flight safety.”  Ethiopian is scheduled to take delivery of its 5th 787 this week, and plans to do so as scheduled and keep its entire remaining fleet of Dreamliners operational.

To their credit, the DGCA is taking a similar approach with national carrier Air India’s fleet of 787s. “We are keeping a close watch in the investigations (at Heathrow). We will take a view (on Air India’s fleet) only after we receive reports of the inquiry and know the causes behind these incidents,” DCGA chief Arun Mishra told the Press Trust of India (PTI). To date, Air India has taken delivery of 7 Dreamliners out of a total order of 27.

Air India should keep its Dreamliner fleet operational

This is the correct tactic. While many in the media, especially (albeit understandably) among the British press, have used this as an opportunity to question the 787’s safety, the fact is that this incident is unrelated to any prior ones on the 787. Aviation is not a perfect process; things can go wrong. And even the best of aircraft have one off issues from time to time (see the recent 777 crash or the Air France A330 crash in 2009). When the safety authorities whose job it is to separate isolated incidents from chronic safety problems are treating the 787 as a safe, airworthy aircraft; you should too.

Every aircraft, especially one with such a large degree of new and advanced technology, will suffer its fair share of teething issues. Remember the A380s wing rib cracks? Or the myriad issues that the 747, 777, 767, A340, and A300 all faced on their respective entries into service (EIS). Give Boeing and other involved parties some time to work out the kinks; because when they do, the 787 is set to revolutionize air travel.

About Vinay Bhaskara

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