Air India's B-787 grounded; hopes for early resolution

New Delhi, Jan 17 (IANS) India's aviation regulator Thursday grounded six Boeing 787 Dreamliners of Air India on safety issues but the airline hoped the technical problems surrounding the aircraft will be solved soon.

The Directorate General of Civil Aviation's (DGCA) decision to ground all six of Air India's B-787 aircraft came after an US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) directive Wednesday night to stop operations of all 50 such planes delivered so far to various airlines.

Though Air India has faced no technical problems with the new aircraft, other airlines which operate the 787 had faced problems with aircraft battery systems' getting overheated.

Recently, a smoke alarm was activated in a domestic flight operating in Japan.

The grounding - an unusual action for a new plane - has brought into focus one of the more risky design choices made by Boeing, namely to make extensive use of lithium ion batteries in its airplanes for the first time.

The batteries are part of an electrical system that replaces many mechanical and hydraulic ones common in previous jets.

When contacted, senior civil ministry officials said they would wait for the results of the FAA's inquiry into Boeing's ability to fix the fire risk linked to battery systems on board the aircraft.

"First FAA has to approve that they (787s) are safe to fly. For this Boeing has to come up with a plan in which FAA will be able to test all the electrical system and batteries on the aircraft," Civil Aviation Minister Ajit Singh said here.

"How long it will take, we will all know only in a couple of days. Until then we will not fly the Dreamliner," added the minister.

However, Air India expects the technical problems with Boeing 787 aircraft would soon be solved.

"We are confident that these technical problems will be resolved soon. We are in the know that Boeing is to submit its initial findings report to the FAA (US' Federal Aviation Administration) today (Thursday) evening," a senior Air India official told IANS.

The national carrier is the only airline in India to operate 787 Dreamliner. Currently, it has six operational 787s.

It said that four 787s were grounded in Delhi, while one each had been stationed in Bangalore and Chennai.

Air India had booked 27 Boeing 787s in 2006 in a mega-deal. Till now it has received six of these aircraft. Air India is supposed to get seven more 787s in 2013, five in 2014, six in 2015 and three in 2016.

The airline operates these aircraft from Delhi to Bangalore, Chennai, Dubai, Paris and Frankfurt.

On Sep 19, Air India started the first commercial Dreamliner service between Delhi and Chennai and then followed with the New Delhi-Bangalore route.

As a part of its contingency plan, the passenger carrier has deployed Boeing 777s on some of the international routes like Delhi-Frankfurt and Delhi-Paris.

The Dubai route was serviced by Boeing 747.

The Dreamliner has been instrumental in replacing the fuel-guzzling Boeing 777s on some international routes, thus saving on cost and increasing efficiency.

Buoyed by the aircraft's performance, the civil aviation ministry asked the airline to explore the possibility of operating to Bali and Istanbul on the Dreamliner aircraft.

Air India was also planning to deploy the aircraft to Sydney, Melbourne and Singapore by the end of the current fiscal.

The aircraft is made of composite materials. Its newly-developed engine and advanced flight technologies makes it highly fuel-efficient. The plane can fly up to 16,000 km non-stop.

The Dreamliners are also an important component in the national carrier's turnaround plan which was passed by the union cabinet last year.

Apart from Air India, Ethiopian Airlines, Japan Airlines (JAL), All Nippon Airways (ANA), LAN Airlines of Chile, LOT of Poland, Qatar Airways and United Airlines of the US fly the aircraft.

There are orders for about 800 units of B-787s in the pipeline.

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