nvestigators probing a fire on a Boeing Dreamliner at London’s Heathrow airport declared on Saturday that their preliminary work had found no evidence that the “extensive heat damage” to the aircraft had been caused by its batteries.
The UK Air Accidents Investigation Branch’s finding will provide limited comfort to the manufacturer because it was the overheating of lithium-ion batteries on two Dreamliners in January that prompted regulators to order a global grounding of Boeing’s newest and most sophisticated passenger jet.
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The three-month grounding rocked Boeing, and Friday’s fire on the Ethiopian Airlines’ Dreamliner at Heathrow raised fresh questions about the safety of the long-haul jet.
Heathrow shut down for more than one hour as emergency services dealt with the fire, which broke out while the Dreamliner was empty and parked at a stand in the middle of the airport.
The AAIB said it had begun an investigation into the incident, adding the Dreamliner was now in a hangar at Heathrow.
“There has been extensive heat damage in the upper portion of the rear fuselage, a complex part of the aircraft, and the initial investigation is likely to take several days,” said the AAIB.
“However, it is clear that this heat damage is remote from the area in which the aircraft main and APU [Auxiliary Power Unit] batteries are located, and, at this stage, there is no evidence of a direct causal relationship.”
Analysts said the apparent location of the fire on the Ethiopian Airlines’ Dreamliner, at the top of the jet fuselage, close to its tail, meant it should be far away from the aircraft’s two lithium-ion batteries.
The main battery for the starter generator on the Dreamliner is towards the front of the jet, in the lower part of the aircraft. The battery for the auxiliary power unit is in the midsection of the jet, also in the lower part of the aircraft.
Boeing said on Saturday after the AAIB statement: “Boeing has been asked to participate as an adviser to the [AAIB-led] investigation and has a team on the ground working in support of authorities.”
Analysts had said on Friday the worst case scenario for Boeing would be if this latest Dreamliner fire was connected to its battery system. The company’s shares fell sharply on Friday, closing down 4.7 per cent at $101.87.
In January, fire broke out in the area containing one of the batteries on a Dreamliner operated by Japan Airlines, while it was at Boston airport in the US. Soon after, an All Nippon Airways’ Dreamliner made an emergency landing in Japan after one of its batteries overheated.
Regulators only ended the Dreamliner’s grounding in April after Boeing made substantial modifications to the battery system, to guard against a repeat of the two incidents in January.
Mark Mangooni, Ethiopian Airlines’ senior manager for the UK, said the incident on its Dreamliner at Heathrow appeared to involve a problem with its air conditioning system.
He said a member of the aircraft’s crew had seen sparks, and alerted the authorities at Heathrow.
In an earlier statement to Reuters, Ethiopian Airlines said the rest of its fleet would continue flying.
“We have not grounded any of our aircraft,” said the airline. “The incident at Heathrow happened while the plane was on the ground and had been for more than eight hours and was not related to flight safety.”
The AAIB has a team of eight investigators at Heathrow, and is being assisted by two US watchdogs – the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration.
The FAA took the regulatory lead in ordering the global grounding of the Dreamliner in January.
The European Aviation Safety Agency, which supervises EU aviation, said it was too early to say whether this latest Dreamliner incident would lead to another grounding of the aircraft.
One person familiar with the incident said the damage could be consistent with a fire in the galley at the rear of the aircraft, or burning involving the air conditioning system.
Meanwhile, Thomson Airways said on Saturday that it had replaced a small number of components on a Dreamliner that turned back during a flight on Friday from Manchester to Florida, adding the aircraft would fly again on Sunday.
The UK airline said the Dreamliner, which returned to Britain as a precautionary measure, had suffered a “minor technical issue”.