Saturday, July 13, 2013

U.K. Agency Says 'No Evidence' Batteries Caused 787 Fire: WSJ

British investigators said "there is no evidence" that lithium-ion batteries caused the fire that damaged a parked Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 787 at London's Heathrow International Airport on Friday, but they didn't indicate what may have sparked the flames.

In a four-paragraph release Saturday, the U.K. Air Accidents Investigation Branch said the fire, which broke out when nobody was aboard, caused "extensive heat damage in the upper portion of the rear fuselage" and spread smoke throughout the fuselage of the wide-body aircraft. The statement said finding initial answers is likely to take several days.

The investigation is in its early phase and could still point to some flaw in part of the airplane. But Saturday's statement is good news for Boeing Co., because both the company and U.S. regulators have repeatedly described previous fixes to the plane's advanced lithium-ion battery systems as failsafe. All Dreamliners were grounded for 3½ months earlier this year, after batteries burned on two aircraft operated by different Japanese carriers and Boeing worked with the Federal Aviation Administration to devise fixes.

Boeing and FAA officials have publicly said the battery systems were re-engineered to preclude any fires stemming from batteries malfunctioning, overheating or failing.

Separately, in an emailed response Saturday to questions from The Wall Street Journal, Ethiopian Airlines said the incident was "not related to flight safety," adding that it hasn't grounded its three other Dreamliners following the incident. Officials from Ethiopian Airlines couldn't be reached to elaborate on the comment.

Other Dreamliner operators also said they were continuing to fly 787s, while monitoring the British-led probe.

A Boeing spokesman declined to comment beyond the company's statement Friday that it had "personnel on the ground at Heathrow and [is] working to fully understand and address this."

The Ethiopian 787, which had arrived from Addis Ababa, was parked at Heathrow for more than eight hours before smoke was detected onboard, the airline and authorities said. Nobody was hurt in the incident. The fire was so intense that it burned through the plane's carbon-fiber composite skin on its roof, in front of the tail fin. Inside the plane near the hole are electrical systems and a galley, among other equipment.

One person briefed on early parts of the investigation said preliminary indications suggest the fire was in the overhead area over the last few rows of seats on the plane, which was plugged into ground power while parked.

Boeing has been reviewing systems in that area of the jet that would remain powered by the attached ground power supplied by the airport, the person said.

What those systems are couldn't immediately be determined. So-called remote-power distribution units, which act as substations for the 787's electrical system, and remote-data concentrators, which help distribute data signals to systems from the jet's central computer, are installed throughout the aircraft—including units next to one another in the ceiling of the jet near the last set of doors on the Dreamliner, where the fire damage appears.

Another person familiar with but not directly involved in the investigation said that at this point, much attention appears focused on examining parts that also are used on Airbus jets. The data concentrators are installed inside Airbus A350 and A380 aircraft.

But industry and government-safety experts on both sides of the Atlantic stressed it's premature to draw conclusions.

British investigators said the damage occurred "in a complex part of the aircraft" and "the initial investigation is likely to take several days."

Also on Saturday morning officials from Boeing, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board and the FAA arrived in London to begin the investigation alongside the AAIB, said a person familiar with the investigation. Air accidents are conducted by officials from at least the countries where the incident occurs, and where the plane was built.

U.S. officials are expected to let their British counterparts take the lead in putting out details about the status of the investigation.

The back area of the 787 also includes a galley behind the last row of seats on Ethiopian's 787s. One person familiar with the analysis of the fire said the galley is also a focus for investigators. Galleys have various heat-producing equipment, such as ovens and coffee makers. Problems with such equipment in the past have caused fires on parked planes.

Ethiopian's comment Saturday is unusual because the official investigation of the incident is still at an early stage, and airlines typically don't make such definitive statements until government investigators release their preliminary findings.

The plane was moved to a secure hangar on Saturday morning, said a spokesman for the U.K. AAIB.

Following its global grounding earlier this year, Dreamliners returned to service after a number of internal battery changes—protected by a new, fireproof metal case—were retrofitted on delivered aircraft. At the same time, Boeing resumed deliveries of 787s, which now contain the re-engineered battery systems.

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