Investors breathed a sigh of relief on Monday as investigators all but conclusively ruled out lithium-ion batteries as playing a role in Friday’s fire on an Ethiopian Airlines Boeing (BA) 787 Dreamliner parked at London’s Heathrow Airport.
The empty Ethiopian Airlines jet — the first Dreamliner to resume revenue service after regulators ended the 787’s 123-day grounding in mid-April — caught fire after having been parked for hours. Also on Friday, a Thomson Airlines Dreamliner en route from Manchester, England, to Florida developed a technical problem about 450 miles southwest of Ireland and was forced to turn back. The airline characterized the incident as a “minor technical issue.”
The lithium-ion battery apparently did not play a role in either of these incidents — and that’s why investors’ spirits (and BA shares) were buoyed Monday, jumping nearly 4%. But the market’s exuberance could be short-lived if investigators find that the fire — and a “technical glitch” that caused another Dreamliner to turn back Friday — are symptoms of broader challenges with the model’s innovative electrical system.
Here are four reasons Boeing’s rebound may be short-lived:
We still don’t know what caused Friday’s fire. When it comes to a business like commercial aviation, which depends on public trust, what you don’t know can hurt you. The Dreamliner, which battled countless production challenges and nearly four years of delays before this year’s grounding, has delivered 68 of the jets to 13 airline customers so far. Perhaps more significant, the model has a cumulative total of just 16 months of commercial service and has experienced 14 incidents, according to the Aviation Safety Network’s database. Six of those incidents resulted in the flights turning back or diverting to another airport. None of this is helping public opinion about the Dreamliner.
Questions linger over the 787’s electrical system. If the batteries are not the problem, investigators might need to put the aircraft’s revolutionary electrical system under the microscope. Traditional jet aircraft rely heavily on pneumatics, which pull power from the engines to create electricity to run all the other onboard systems. Because pneumatic systems are heavier, less powerful and burn more fuel, BA designed an electric system for the 787. Boeing says Dreamliner’s six generators produce more electricity to power systems while using remote power distribution units to feed systems more efficiently, as pictured here. Several of the 787 incidents referenced above involved failures in the aircraft’s electrical system — including a 2010 fire in a test aircraft’s P100 power distribution panel and a December 2012 generator problem in a United Airlines (UAL) Dreamliner.
Damage to Ethiopian Airlines’ jet raises questions about composites. The fire clearly burned through the top of the fuselage in front of the tail. The battery was quickly dismissed as the source because the burned areas are immediately above the two auxiliary power unit starter generators — and half a plane away from the closest lithium-ion battery. The damage, however, is in a very critical area on the aircraft, and we don’t know how difficult or expensive it will be to repair fire damage. It could take several days before we know the full story, but the worst-case scenario would be that the damage is extensive enough for the jet to be written off as a hull loss. If that were to happen — although there is no evidence to suggest that outcome so far — it could prove damaging to the aircraft’s future.
ETOPs issues could rise again. While regulators are unlikely to ground the aircraft again without evidence of another serious safety problem, the recent raft of diversions and emergency landings could prompt them to reassess the Dreamliner’s certification for extended operations over water. The 787 currently is certified to fly routes that are three hours away from a diversion airport. Many sales — particularly to foreign carriers — were made under the assumption that the 787’s ETOPs certification would be further boosted to five and a half hours. If the FAA concludes that presently unknown factors — including potential electrical systems glitches — could adversely impact the 787’s airworthiness in flight, it would put Boeing on the hot seat with customers who bought the plane for long-haul transoceanic routes.
It will take time to sort out not only what caused last Friday’s Dreamliner fire, but whether there are any potential air safety issues that could stem from the other technical glitches. Questions that don’t prompt easy answers — such as why Thomson Flight 126 flew in a holding pattern for three hours instead of using the Dreamliner’s advanced jettison system to dump fuel — don’t help the 787’s image now.
Regulators, aviation experts and airline customers are confident that the Dreamliner is safe — otherwise the plane would not be in service today. But every time a new glitch hits the news, Boeing must shift into PR mode — at best, a distraction from the real work of building its business and next generation aircraft like the 777X and 737MAX.
Boeing must put Dreamliner’s “teething problems” behind it now, or risk becoming raw meat to angry shareholders.
As of this writing, Susan J. Aluise did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.