Another Dreamliner ignites; one turns back

Boeing dealt fresh blow as Ethiopian Air 787 burns while parked; Florida-bound jet also balks


A Boeing 787 Dreamliner caught fire at London Heathrow on Friday while a “technical issue” forced a second to return to a different British airport, sending stocks in the aviation giant plummeting.

The fire on the parked Ethiopian Airlines plane forced Heathrow, the world’s busiest international passenger hub, to shut down for 90 minutes but caused no injuries.

A Boeing spokesman said the U.S. firm had personnel on the ground at the west London airport and was “working to fully understand and address this.”

In a separate incident, engineers were inspecting a Florida-bound Thomson Airways Dreamliner that had to return to Manchester Airport in northwest England after take-off.

Boeing temporarily withdrew the Dreamliner from service earlier this year after concerns that the lithium-ion batteries on board could cause fires, but has since rolled out modifications it said would ensure they were safe.

A Heathrow spokeswoman said the Ethiopian Airlines plane, named Queen of Sheba, was empty when the blaze was reported at around 3:30 p.m. local time.

Television images showed the Dreamliner surrounded by pools of foam, with three fire engines on the scene.

“Emergency services are currently dealing with the incident,” the Heathrow spokeswoman said. “No one was on board so there were no casualties.”

Heathrow announced at 5 p.m. that services were resuming, but warned passengers to expect delays. Meanwhile, Britain’s Thomson Airways said its Boeing 787 had landed safely at Manchester after experiencing a “technical issue” after take-off.

“Thomson Airways can confirm that flight TOM126 traveling from Manchester to Sanford, Florida, experienced a technical issue and the aircraft returned to Manchester Airport, as a precautionary measure,” the airline said in a statement.

“Passengers have disembarked and our dedicated team of engineers are now inspecting the aircraft.”

A spokesman for Manchester Airport, Britain’s busiest outside London, confirmed that the plane was a Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

Boeing’s shares closed 4.7 percent lower at $101.87 in New York trading after clawing back from a dive of more than 7 percent.

A global grounding order on the Dreamliner was issued in January after lithium-ion batteries overheated on two different jets, with one of them catching fire while the aircraft was parked.

  • Spudator

    Assuming this is again a problem with the batteries catching fire, I can’t say I’m surprised it’s happened. As I mentioned in a previous post when Boeing “fixed” this problem, it hasn’t been fixed at all. You can’t fix something if you don’t know what the problem is, and neither Boeing nor GS Yuasa, the Japanese makers of the batteries, have a clue why these lithium-ion battery subsystems have an unfortunate tendency to spontaneously combust.

    Boeing’s non-fix fix was to come up with as many educated guesses as possible as to what the problem might be. They then took measures to prevent all these hypothetical problems from occurring. Now, assuming that the actual problem corresponded to one of the hypothetical problems, this engineering-by-guesswork approach would indeed have yielded a solution. (It’s the old shit-against-the wall approach: some of it, hopefully, is bound to stick.) Of course, if the actual problem was something that Boeing hadn’t been able to guess, the non-fix fix would simply be a non-fix. To cover this eventuality, Boeing jerry-rigged the batteries—by putting them in fireproof boxes—so that if one did catch fire again, the fire would be contained and the smoke safely vented.

    Well, if this latest fire really is down to a battery igniting, it’s clear that none of Boeing’s guesses about the underlying problem was correct, although their containment add-ons may have worked by limiting the extent of the fire. This is scary stuff—an engineering company that designs critical systems by guesswork and hopes for the best. What’s worse is that the U.S. Federal Aviation Authority OK’d this completely unsatisfactory solution. One has to wonder if the FAA isn’t more concerned with ensuring the profitability of U.S. aircraft makers than the safety of international air passengers.

    Perhaps it’s time for Boeing to dump GS Yuasa and retrofit all their Dreamliners with power supply systems from another manufacturer. Until then, anyone on a Dreamliner could find themselves flying on a wing and a prayer.