More B747-Dreamliner blues for Boeing

Courtesy Associated Press

Courtesy Associated Press

BOEING shares tumbled Friday by seven per cent following reports of a fire on board an Ethiopian Airlines B787-Dreamliner aircraft at London Heathrow. That pretty much sums up the kind of reaction that Boeing should be concerned about, even as investigations have yet to determine the cause of the fire and initial findings have said it was not related to the battery problems that resulted in the entire world fleet of 50 jets owned by different airlines being grounded in January.

The Ethiopian aircraft was on ground for eight hours before smoke was spotted. There were no passengers on board. Any number of things could have caused the fire, including external factors such as careless handling or smoking by ground staff. But the fact remains that as unrelated the cause may be to the earlier problems or to the aircraft per se, it happened all too soon as the aircraft retakes to the sky. It was the first commercial flight for the Ethiopian Airline jet, christened Queen of Sheba, since the grounding.

Public reactions are apt to be more emotional than rational. This was not helped by another airline, Thompson Airways – which became the first British carrier to operate the B747-Dreamliner while compatriots British Airways and Virgin Atlantic delivery of their orders – aborting a flight from Manchester to Florida as a precautionary measure. The aircraft returned to base because of technical issues. United Airlines has also reported technical issues encountered by its fleet of the B787-Dreamliner, which in the lead-up to its introduction has been touted as the jet of the century for its quietness and fuel-efficiency.

Experts will point out that new aircraft models are expected to experience teething problems. However, public perception of these problems may take a different dimension. The battery problem experienced by Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways was serious enough to warrant the grounding of the entire jet fleet. The good news is that Boeing had resolved the issue – with new batteries and protective casings – and Boeing shares bounced back, rising more than 40 per cent subsequently.

The latest incident involving Ethiopian Airlines is unlikely to be deemed more serious than or as serious as the earlier incidents that triggered the global grounding. It was unfortunate that it should happen so soon after. Ethiopian Airlines said it would continue operating its fleet of the aircraft model. It would be superfluous to even suspect other airlines, whether present owners or awaiting delivery, would think otherwise. It behooves Boeing to act even quicker to quell suspicion, allay concerns of safety, check misleading speculation and restore confidence. The B747-Dreamliner may yet live up to its name of being a dream jet of the industry.

You can expect the public to be forgiving. The operative word is faith – faith in the US Federal Aviation Administration and other national air transport authorities, faith in Boeing and other aircraft manufacturers, and faith in the airlines that travellers book to fly with to not compromise on air safety. I still experience passengers applauding when an aircraft lands, and I like to think it is not so much in relief as in appreciation, pleased that their faith has not been misplaced.

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About David Leo
David Leo has more than 30 years of aviation experience, having served in senior management in one of the world's best airlines and airports. He continues to maintain a keen interest in the business, writes freelance and provides consultancy services in the field.

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