Dreamliner grounded in Japan

Jan. 16: The Dreamliner, considered the future of commercial aviation and ordered in bulk by Air India, has been grounded for safety checks by the two biggest airlines in Japan after an emergency landing lengthened a string of snags.

All Nippon Airways (ANA) said a Boeing 787 passenger jet was forced to land at Takamatsu airport in western Japan when a cockpit message showed battery problems and a burning smell was detected in the cockpit and the cabin.

Japan's transport ministry said it received notices from ANA, which operates 17 of the jets, and Japan Airlines, which has seven, that all their 787s would not be flying. The voluntary grounding means Air India is the sole airline in Asia, other than Qatar Airways, flying the 787s now.

The Indian civil aviation regulator today said it would conduct a safety review of the plane but had no plans to immediately ground the aircraft in service with Air India. Several other airlines have ordered around 850 of the new aircraft, though all have not been delivered yet.

Air India, which has taken delivery of six of the 27 Dreamliners it had ordered, flies the plane to Dubai, Paris and Frankfurt on the international circuit and on several domestic metro routes.

ANA said instruments aboard the domestic flight indicated a battery error, triggering emergency warnings to the pilots. All 129 passengers and eight crew evacuated via the plane's inflatable chutes. One person was taken to hospital with minor hip injuries.

A transport ministry official described the incident as "highly serious" ' language used in international safety circles as indicating there could have been an accident. This is the latest in a line of mishaps ' fuel leaks, a battery fire, wiring problem, brake computer glitch and cracked cockpit window ' to hit the 787 in recent days.

The two airlines said they would decide tomorrow whether to resume Dreamliner flights the following day.

The Dreamliner is Boeing's newest and most technologically advanced jet, and the US company is counting heavily on its success. The 787, which has a list price of $207 million (around Rs 1,138 crore), represents a leap in the way planes are designed and built. The plane is made with lightweight composite materials instead of aluminium.

The Dreamliner relies more than any other modern airliner on electrical signals to help power nearly everything the plane does. Electrical power operates hydraulic pumps, de-ices the wings, pressurises the cabin and handles other tasks. The plane has electric, not hydraulic, brakes.

It is also the first Boeing plane to use lighter and rechargeable lithium ion batteries, which charge faster and can be moulded to space-saving shapes compared to other airplane batteries.

The use of the new battery technology is among the cost-saving features of the 787, which Boeing says burns 20 per cent less fuel than rival jets using older technology.

But Boeing engineers have acknowledged that there is a risk of fire if the batteries are overcharged. Once alight, they are difficult to put out as the chemicals produce oxygen, Boeing's chief engineer for the 787, Mike Sinnett, had said last week. He said then that lithium ion was not the only choice of battery, but "it was the right choice".

ANA, the Japanese airline, said the battery in the forward cargo hold was the same lithium-ion type as the one involved in a fire on another Dreamliner at a US airport last week.

Some have suggested Boeing's rush to get planes built after a three-year delay resulted in the recent problems, a charge the company strenuously denies.

Boeing has sought to ease concerns about the plane's design and reliability, and has insisted it was no more trouble-prone than other new commercial airplanes.

The earliest manufactured jets of any new aircraft usually have problems and airlines run higher risks in flying them first, said Brendan Sobie, the Singapore-based chief analyst at CAPA-Center for Aviation. Since about half the 787 fleet is in Japan, more problems are cropping up there.

But others pointed out that Boeing would run into perception problems. "I think you're nearing the tipping point where they need to regard this as a serious crisis," said Richard Aboulafia, a senior analyst with the Teal Group in Fairfax, Virginia. "This is going to change people's perception of the aircraft if they don't act quickly."

Last week, the US Federal Aviation Administration ordered a comprehensive review of the Dreamliner's manufacturing and design, with a special focus on the plane's electrical systems. The review is unusual, just 15 months after the Dreamliner entered service following a lengthy certification process by the FAA.

As many Japanese-based manufacturers supply parts for the Dreamliner, any delays or cancellations of orders would be a shock for Japanese industry, too.

In Delhi, Arun Mishra, the director-general of civil aviation, said: "We will review the situation in consultation with Boeing and Air India."

The Indian regulator is also awaiting reports of the FAA as well as Boeing.

"I am in touch with Boeing and they are going to give me an update on the electrical problems they suffered in Japan," Mishra said. "We are not having any problem with our Dreamliners. The problems we had earlier have been fixed," he added.

In August last year, the front cargo door of one of Air India's Dreamliners had a glitch. In September, a cooling unit meant to prevent power-generating equipment of the aircraft from overheating, malfunctioned on a Dreamliner in Delhi.

After the faults were rectified, the Dreamliners have been flying regularly. Boeing has designated a team in Delhi for trouble-shooting.

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