Friday, July 12, 2013

Boeing 787 Dreamliner Catches Fire in London: WSJ

Emergency crews responded to a fire aboard an Ethiopian Airlines 787 aircraft at Heathrow Airport in London on Friday afternoon, marking a fresh setback for Boeing Co.'s troubled Dreamliner jet.

The incident comes as Boeing's business has been returning to normal following the global grounding earlier this year of the 787 for problems with its lithium-ion batteries.

An emergency crew surrounds a Boeing 787 Dreamliner, operated by Ethiopian Airlines, which caught fire at Britain's Heathrow airport Friday.

A Heathrow spokesman said the incident involved an internal onboard fire on the aircraft, which was at a remote parking stand with no passengers aboard. Emergency services were called shortly after 4:30 p.m. local time. Arrivals and departures were suspended for just over an hour, and flights resumed shortly before 6 p.m.

"We're aware of the 787 event @HeathrowAirport and have Boeing personnel there. We're working to fully understand and address this," the plane maker said in a statement.

News of the incident quickly took a toll on Boeing shares. Before reaching a 52-week high of $108.13 earlier Friday Boeing stock dropped quickly after news of the fire broke, falling more as much as 7%. The stock finished the session at $101.87, down 4.7%, on the New York Stock Exchange.

The National Transportation Safety Board posted on its Twitter account it is "sending accredited representative to London-Heathrow to assist in investigation of fire aboard Ethiopian Airlines B-787." The U.K. Air Accident Investigation Branch "has sent a team to investigate an incident to a Boeing 787 at Heathrow," according to a message on its Twitter account.

In a separate incident, another 787 aircraft suffered problems Friday when a Thomson Airways flight was grounded because of "technical issues," a spokesman for the airline said. The flight, TOM126, had taken off from U.K.'s Manchester airport and was headed to Sanford, Fla., but had to return to Manchester "as a precautionary measure," the spokesman said.

The aircraft, which can carry some 290 passengers, was at near capacity. There were no injuries and passengers disembarked. Engineers were inspecting the plane, the spokesman said.

The 787 has suffered a spate of smaller technical glitches that have forced airline operators to delay and cancel numerous flights. Those types of issues aren't necessarily uncommon for a new jetliner like the Dreamliner, which first began carrying passengers in 2011. However, a fire aboard an aircraft is a considerably more serious event and is likely to be evaluated separately from the jet's teething issues.

Television footage of Heathrow showed damage to the top of the jet's body near the passenger doors at the rear of the 787. That area of the aircraft houses the crew rest compartment, which sits above the passenger cabin. The 787's twin lithium-ion batteries are installed below the floor in electrical bays near the nose and between the wings of the aircraft, far from the damaged area visible in the footage.

About 40 minutes after the airport's management officially closed both runways, there was still no announcement for passengers, though some travelers were following developments on Twitter and airport TVs. Airlines continued to board passengers, although some airport ground staff said delays were likely. The departure lounge at Terminal 3 was busy, as is typical on a Friday afternoon in the summer. At 6 p.m., the departure boards showed flights were boarding and gates closing as usual with no indication of major delays.

A spokesman for Ethiopian Airlines at its headquarters in Addis Ababa said the airline didn't know yet what caused the fire. "We are investigating the cause with all officials involved, including Boeing and Heathrow," the spokesman said.

Ethiopian was the first airline to reintroduce the 787 in late-April after the jet was grounded for 3½ months by global regulators following twin incidents with its lithium-ion batteries. The airline took delivery of its first 787 back in August 2012, and currently operates four of the long-haul aircraft in its fleet.

During the grounding, Boeing developed a system to contain any potential fire risk of the jet's lithium-ion batteries. The plane maker scrambled to satisfy regulators with the new design to return the jet to service, incorporating a containment box for the battery, as well as a new charger and method of dumping smoke and fumes overboard should a fire occur.

In Washington on Friday, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration, which previously approved the battery fixes, said "we are aware of the situation and we're in contact with Boeing as they assess the incident."

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