U.S. officials are investigating a fire aboard a Boeing Co. (BA:US) 787 Dreamliner in Boston after a Japan Airlines Co. (9201) flight from Tokyo, the latest setback for the jet following several groundings last month.
Flames about two feet (0.6 meter) high shot out of an avionics bay in the jet’s belly yesterday as the plane sat at a Logan International Airport gate before its next departure, and there was a small explosion, Massachusetts Port Authority Fire Chief Robert Donahue said in an interview. Japan Airlines, which has seven 787s, won’t ground other Dreamliners.
Boeing’s newest model has been plagued by incidents since entering commercial service in late 2011, and a previous fire in the avionics bay forced the test fleet to be parked in 2010. Electrical faults in December forced United Continental Holdings Inc. (UAL:US) and Qatar Airways Ltd. to ground 787s, the first jet with a fuselage made chiefly of composite materials instead of aluminum and with an all-electric power system.
“In-flight fires are very serious,” said John Cox, a former airline pilot who now consults on safety issues with Washington-based firm Safety Operating Systems. “Although this happened on the ground, the idea that there was a fire on board means that this needs to be carefully evaluated.”
Japan Airlines said its 787 service to Boston from Tokyo today will fly as scheduled. Yesterday’s return trip to Tokyo was canceled, Sze Hunn Yap, a spokeswoman, said today in a telephone interview.
The smoke was traced to a fire from the battery used for the auxiliary power unit, Japan Airlines said in a statement today, as the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board and Federal Aviation Administration began their own inquiries. The unit, which is made by United Technologies Corp. (UTX:US), is designed to provide electricity when the engines are off.
GS Yuasa Corp. (6674) made the battery involved in the 787 fire and it’s cooperating with the investigation, Tsutomu Nishijima, a spokesman for the Kyoto-based company said by phone. GS Yuasa isn’t aware of the reason for the fire, he said.
The company’s shares declined 4 percent to 335 yen in Tokyo trading today, the biggest drop since Oct. 23.
Japan Airlines gained 1.1 percent to 3,780 yen in Tokyo trading today. The company has checked the batteries of five of its 787 aircraft and inspection of the sixth will be completed by 6 a.m. tomorrow, spokesman Taro Namba said.
All Nippon Airways Co., the initial operator of the 787, received a communication from the transport ministry to check all its 787s and the company will inspect the batteries on all its 787s by today, spokesman Ryosei Nomura said by phone.
ANA, as the carrier is also known, wasn’t doing anything different with its fleet in light of the Japan Airlines incident, said Nao Gunji, a spokeswoman. Boeing said it wasn’t making any changes to its test-flight plans for other 787s, either.
The NTSB sent an investigator to Boston, said Kelly Nantel, a spokeswoman. The FAA, the agency that certified the jet’s design in 2011, said it also is looking into the fire.
“Anything that involves a fire does not get the luxury of being called a teething problem,” said Carter Leake, an analyst at BB&T Capital Markets in Richmond, Virginia, and a former military and commercial airline pilot. “Boeing needs to get ahead of this quickly, because now you run the risk of getting into a passenger aversion issue.”
While last month’s Qatar Airways failure came on the plane’s delivery flight, a United jet had to make an emergency landing in New Orleans while carrying passengers to New Jersey’s Newark airport from Houston.
Debris in an electrical panel on a Dreamliner sparked an in-flight fire in late 2010, before the plane entered service, grounding the entire test fleet for six weeks and forcing a redesign of parts of the system that added six months to more than three years of delivery delays on the plane.
Boeing fell 2 percent yesterday to $76.13 at the close in New York in the biggest decline since Nov. 14. That pared the shares’ gain in the past year to 2.9 percent.
“We are aware of the event, and we are working with our customer,” said Marc Birtel, a spokesman at Boeing’s commercial headquarters in Seattle.
Flight 008 arrived at Logan International Airport at 10:06 a.m. Boston time with 183 passengers and crew, Japan Airlines said in a statement. Everyone was off the plane when a mechanic observed smoke in the cockpit at 10:30 and alerted the fire department, Donahue said.
The blaze broke out under the cabin in an avionics bay that also houses batteries for the APU, said Richard Walsh, a spokesman for Massport, the airport operator.
Firefighters from Massport and the Boston Fire Department discovered smoke throughout the cabin and used hand-held infrared detection devices to locate the blaze, Donahue said.
It took about 20 minutes to extinguish the fire, using a gas called Halotron that displaces oxygen in electronics fires. Shortly afterward, there was a small explosion in the compartment that Donahue said probably came from a battery pack. A dry chemical powder was used to put that out, he said.
The 787 includes several lithium-ion rechargeable batteries to power electronics and other equipment, according to FAA records. The FAA imposed special conditions in 2007 on the use of lithium-based batteries because they are a greater fire hazard than other battery technologies.
Lithium batteries burn violently and cannot be easily extinguished, according to FAA and NTSB tests.
The FAA said in rules published in the Federal Register that the batteries must be designed to prevent overheating. If a battery did fail, it should not release dangerous gases or damage nearby wiring, according to agency records.
Leake, the BB&T analyst, said any connection between yesterday’s incident and previous faults would mean that “the ante has been upped.”
“The system should always be designed to isolate, and you should never generate enough heat for a fire,” said Leake, who formerly worked at Canadian planemaker Bombardier Inc. He has a buy rating on Boeing.
There were no injuries yesterday, though one firefighter was evaluated for skin irritation, Donahue said. Airport firefighters had trained with Boeing on the Dreamliner, which familiarized them with the plane and made their work more efficient, he said.
The plane that caught fire was delivered to Japan Airlines last month, the seventh 787 the carrier had received after getting its first in March. It still has another 38 on order, according to Boeing’s website.
In July, an engine component on a 787 intended for Air India fractured, spewing shards of metal and sparking a brushfire as the plane prepared for its first flight in South Carolina. The FAA ordered in December that Dreamliners be inspected after fuel leaks on two planes were traced to manufacturing errors.
Boeing Chief Executive Officer Jim McNerney has characterized the previous incidents on the 787 as “normal introductory squawks” for a new model.
The planemaker has delivered about 50 Dreamliners to eight customers since All Nippon received the first one in September 2011. Boeing is doubling the jet’s production rate this year to 10 a month to fill orders for about 800 Dreamliners, which are valued at about $225 million at the average list price.
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