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.


Putting Dreamliner back up in the sky: More than an act of faith

Photo: Elias Asmore/Associated Press

Photo: Elias Asmore/Associated Press

Ethiopian Airlines became the first airline to put the Dreamliner B787 jet back up in the sky following a formal “air worthiness” directive by US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to allow resumption of commercial operations.

The Dreamliner was grounded in January over concerns of fire risks resulting from possible malfunctioning of the jet’s lithium-ion batteries. While the actual cause of the sparks experienced by Japan Airlines would never be known, Boeing has refitted the model with new batteries approved by FAA. The new batteries, encased in stainless steel boxes with a ventilation pipe that goes directly to the outside of the plane, run at a much cooler temperature.

The Ethiopian flight took off from Addis Ababa and landed safely in Nairobi, Kenya some two hours later – paving the way for the other operators of the global fleet of 50 aircraft to follow suit. Boeing expects to complete repairs of the entire fleet by May. All Nippon Airways (ANA) which has the largest number of 17 Dreamliners said it would commence retraining of its pilots to resume flying the aircraft in June.

The task at hand now is to convince the travelling public that the revamped B787 is safe for flying. ANA plans to reintroduce the jet for freight only before using it to carry passengers. The Ethiopian flight was full of Boeing executives in an act of faith. All this may in the end prove to be academic since not many people know about the aircraft make and model that they have booked on or make it a necessary condition of their flying. The airline brand (its safety record implicit) and other factors such as schedules and costs are likely to matter more.

Courtesy Reuters

Courtesy Reuters

All said, ANA is probably more concerned about the perception than other airlines. If it is of any comfort, closest rival JAL also operates the B787. But that would be taking a diffident stand for all the hours that Boeing has put in to rectify the problem and the assurance it has given of its improved design. Surely, it must be more than an act of faith.

Happily for Boeing, the scare over, it may again sell on how much more fuel efficient the lightweight Dreamliner is compared with other similar jets. The company reported a 20-per-cent jump in net income to US$1.1 billion for the first three months of the year – in spite of the Dreamliner grounding.

Boeing blues

Three months after the grounding of the B787-Dreamliner and while Boeing struggles to resolve the issue to get the plane back up in the sky, a new problem has landed on its lap – this time, concerning the B737 jets. The US Federal Aviation Administration has issued an airworthiness directive for more than 1,000 B737 planes operating in its airspace (which also applies in Canada) to be inspected for faulty tail pins that may have prematurely corroded, causing pilots to lose control of the plane.

The FAA said: “We are issuing this AD to prevent premature failure of the attach pins, which could cause reduced structural integrity of the horizontal stabilizer to fuselage attachment, resulting in loss of control of the airplane.”

It is a precautionary move, but likely a costly one for the airlines that have a large number of the B737 jets in their fleet, such as WestJet Airlines of Canada. Since the B737 is a short to medium-range aircraft, it is likely that regional airlines including cargo operators are likely to be the most affected. But safety is not something that you can or want to downplay in the business of flying.

This could not have come at a worse time upon the heel of a Lion Air crash into the waters, short landing at Bali’s Ngurah Rai International Airport in Indonesia just this week. Fortunately all passengers survived. There was no connection between the incident and FAA’s directive – the way that the grounding of the B787-Dreamliner was consequent upon sparks aboard a Japan Airlines plane initially suspected to be caused by the lithium-ion battery pack – and investigators have yet to establish the cause. It might even be extraneous to Boeing. Lion Air, which is Indonesia’s second largest airline and one of the fastest growing in the region, is banned from operating within the US and European Union over safety concerns.

Photo: Reuters/Stringer Indonesia

Photo: Reuters/Stringer Indonesia

But what came across as frightfully familiar was how the fuselage of the Lion Air plane broke apart, recalling similar mishaps experienced by four other airlines that include Continental Airlines in 2008, American Airlines in 2009, Aires Airlines (Colombia) in 2010 and Caribbean Airlines in 2011. Mind you, the B737 has been around since the 1960s and is a favourite plane for regional flights. It is in fact the best selling jet in the history of aviation.

Boeing will have much to do to repair its image. The aircraft business is dominated by two players – Boeing itself and Airbus, and the competition is such that for the bigger jets, the decision to buy which make and model usually comes down to either one of them. Aircraft orders can span several years, and timing is important.

Then, of course, as things settle, there is the looming question of compensation for downtime if Boeing is found to be contributory to its customer airlines losing out on opportunities. At least one airline – Qatar Airways – affected by the grounding of the B787-Dreamliner has publicly announced it will seek compensation from Boeing. Qatar chairman Akbar Al Baker said: “Definitely we will demand compensation. We are not buying airplanes from them to put in a museum.”

Dreamliner: Waking from a nightmare

Courtesy AFP

Courtesy AFP

BOEING’s Mike Sinnett, the chief project engineer of the Dreamliner, said: “I get often asked if I think the airplane is still safe. My answer is simple: absolutely.” He was quick to add that the Dreamliner” is among the safest airplanes our company has ever produced”.

Indeed, as Boeing announced its confidence in getting the Dreamliner back up in the sky in a matter of weeks, that must be the question utmost in everyone’s mind – air travellers in particular.

Hailed as one of the most advanced and fuel-efficient planes in aviation history, it is riding out a nightmare of safety concerns that led to the grounding of the entire fleet in operation early in the year. The ion-lithium battery pack was suspected to be the main culprit of sparks on a Japan Airlines flight. All Nippon Airways (ANA), the largest operator of the Dreamliner with 17 of the 50 aircraft in use, also experienced malfunction of the battery pack.

Boeing said it had found a fix for the problem, redesigning the battery to prevent overheating. It is now up to certification by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which has said that it requires “extensive testing and analysis.” It cannot risk another round of accusation that perhaps it had not been thorough in its initial inspection.

Trust that Boeing has done its best under the circumstances because, according to Mr Sinnet, “We may never get to the single root cause, but the process that we’ve applied to understanding what improvements can be made is the most robust process we have ever followed in improving a part in the history.” He added: “So I feel more confident in the performance of the product now, because we’ve addressed many possible things than I would if we had only just addressed one thing.”

The next best thing Boeing can do is to look to time as that great restorer of faith.

ANA’s Dreamliner pain deepens

Courtesy Reuters

Courtesy Reuters

Singapore Airlines (SIA) which sought to be the first to operate the Airbus A380 in 2007 must be heaving a sigh of relief that it had passed over the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. It was All Nippon Airways (ANA) that made the wrong bet.

When the Boeing aircraft was grounded in early January following the unknown cause of a fire that was at first suspected to be caused by the lithium battery (see Dreamliner: Not quite a dream start, Jan 17, 2013; Japanese carriers remain positive despite Dreamliner grounding, Feb 5, 2013), it was widely hopeful that operations would resume by the end of the month as the aircraft maker moves quickly to investigate the cause and fix the problem. Then some of the airlines affected moved the delay to mid-February, and now it all seems but uncertain when this is likely to happen. ANA, the biggest operator of the aircraft – 17 out of the world’s 50 B787 in operations – is cancelling all flights using the aircraft till at least the end of May.

ANA announced its decision even as Boeing said it expected to fix the problem to get the Dreamliners back in the sky by mid-April. The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is reviewing Boeing’s proposal but said: “The safety of the public is our top priority and we won’t allow the 787 to return to commercial service until we’re confident that any proposed solution has addressed the battery failure risks.”

Unfortunately for ANA, Japan’s Golden Week holiday which normally experiences peak travel will fall during the extended period of cancellation of 1,700 flights in April and May.  This will bring the number of flights cancelled to 3,600. As many as 60,000 ANA customers have been affected.

The cost to ANA has so far been US$15.4 million (January), and it remains an open question as to how much more this will affect the airline’s profitability. While ANA may be protected by compensation that it will seek from Boeing, the bigger issue in the long term is one of opportunity cost and the loss of customers to competitors. Boeing itself recognizes this, saying it would take “every necessary step to assure our customers and the travelling public of the integrity of the 787.” (See Prolonged Dreamliner grounding is not good news for Boeing and its customers, Jan 28, 2013).

Prolonged Dreamliner grounding is not good news for Boeing and its customers

Courtesy Wikipedia Commons

Courtesy Wikipedia Commons

ACCORDING to Japan’s transport ministry, airline safety inspectors have found no faults with the battery used on Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

The new aircraft experienced a string of issues, culminating in a fire incident aboard a Japan Airlines aircraft at Boston’s Logan International Airport (USA) that led to the fleet’s grounding by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). (See Dreamliner: Not quite a dream start, Jan 17, 2013).

With the latest findings that put to rest the initial suspicion that the Dreamliner’s problems had to do with the battery, it opens up new concerns that can only suggest that the problem may be all that more serious because of its uncertainty. For now, attention has shifted to the electrical system that monitors battery voltage, charging and temperature.

Japanese transport ministry official Shigeru Takano said: “We have found no major quality or technical problem (with the lithium-ion batteries). We are looking into affiliated parts makers.”

This is not good news for Boeing as it may mean going back to the drawing board, delays in aircraft deliveries even though Boeing has said it would not stop making the planes pending outcome of the investigations, and loss of potential, even actual, orders. It may be pressed into making higher compensatory payments to the affected airlines.

Neither is it good news for airline owners of the Dreamliner, including potential owners. The grounding will now be longer than expected – longer than what most of the airlines have originally foreseen in their schedule adjustment to last end-January. While the operations of most of them are not expected to be widely affected in the short term, a longer delay can means lost opportunities, reduced clientele and delayed launches of new routes and destinations. For now, most of them may easily replace the Dreamliner operations with other aircraft still within their fleet, and for many of them it is comparatively a small number.

However, All Nippon Airways which owns 24 of the world’s 50 operating Dreamliner aircraft is likely to be the most hurt even as it insisted – for now – the impact on its profits so far is minimal and did not foresee a significant dent in its bottom line. ANA senior vice president Shinzo Shimizu said “we think the impact isn’t so big” that it required the airline to undertake a review of its strategies. The airline said it already has a contingency plan to deal with a potential prolonged grounding. The Japanese carrier has cancelled its newly launched flight from Tokyo to San Jose along with some flights to Seattle in the USA.

So often has it been said that the longer an aircraft sits on the ground, the more money an airline loses.

Qantas cancels Dreamliner order: Bad timing for Boeing

Courtesy Boeing

Courtesy Boeing

AUSTRALIAN flag carrier Qantas has cancelled a single order of Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner for budget subsidiary Jetstar. However it is retaining the order for 14 aircraft to be delivered as planned, with the first Dreamliner to be delivered in mid-2013.

In a statement issued by the airline, Qantas CEO Alan Joyce said: “The original 787 order for Jetstar was designed to replace all 11 of its existing A330s that are used for long haul services plus provide another four lines of flying for future growth. While the plan is for Jetstar’s long haul network to keep expanding we are using the flexibility in our agreement with Boeing to cancel a firm order knowing that we can replace it with one of our 50 options for this aircraft down the track, and with a full view of what market conditions are like at the time.”

It is no big deal, just another one of those commercial decisions in the normal course of adjusting to market conditions. Albeit only one aircraft when the airline still retains its order of 14 others, it nonetheless is bad timing for Boeing on the heel of the grounding all B787 by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) of the US and other airport agencies around the world, following safety concerns over batteries. (See Dreamliner: Not quite a dream start, Jan 17).

Meantime, Boeing has halted aircraft deliveries pending investigations of the incidents that led to the aircraft grounding. Questions are also being raised as to whether FAA has been adequately thorough in its study of the Dreamliner before stamping its approval for operations.

Part of Qantas’ B787-8 plans is to enable the transfer of Airbus A330 aircraft from Jetstar to Qantas Domestic.