Investigation Underway But Boeing’s 787s Remain in the Air

Boeing 787 Planes

Even after flames engulfed an empty Boeing (NYSE:BA) 787 Dreamliner parked at London’s Heathrow Airport on Friday, doing serious harm to the plane, airlines around the world continue to fly the jets.

But the incident has reignited uncertainty for Boeing and the 13 airlines currently operating the Dreamliner — including Ethiopian Airlines, whose jet caught fire — because the plane has been plagued by a string of problems. Now, an investigation has been launched.

Since two battery meltdowns forced regulators in the United States and Japan to ground the Dreamliner fleet in January for three-and-a-half months, Boeing has fought to rebuild trust in the wide-body plane.

Investigators have so far only made a short statement. The United Kingdom’s Air Accidents Investigation Branch said Saturday there was no evidence the lithium-ion batteries directly caused the fire — good news for Boeing, which said its fixes to the battery system would prevent further fires. However, that determination has left open a wide range of possible causes that could have a varying impact on the jet’s future, including isolated human error or a new design flaw in the Dreamliner’s advanced electrical system, which is one of the plane’s key innovations.

Included among the electrical parts housed near the location of the fire are two of the plane’s 17 remote power distribution units, which act as substations for its electrical system, and three of the 21 remote data concentrators, which deliver data signals from the jet’s central computer.

Those solid-state components are a key part of the 787’s powerful electrical and computer systems, which Boeing used in place of many traditional mechanical parts and wiring to make the Dreamliner lighter and burn less fuel. The computer and electrical systems, like the plane’s batteries, employ technologies that have not been used before in jets.

The Air Accidents Investigation Branch, which is conducting the problem with U.S. officials, said the initial investigation is expected to take several days. In a statement made Saturday, Boeing announced it was asked to participate as an adviser to the inquiry and said that “protocol dictates that all publicly released information concerning the investigation must come from, or be approved by, the AAIB,” according to The Wall Street Journal.

The airlines’ decision not to suspend Dreamliner flights indicates that no evidence has been uncovered to suggest a systemic problem that could endanger passengers. A Boeing spokesman said Sunday that “the safety of passengers and crew members who fly aboard Boeing airplanes is our highest priority. We are confident the 787 is safe and we stand behind its overall integrity.”

Ethiopian Airlines said the fire was not “related to flight safety,” though a source told the Journal that the comment meant the plane was not flying at the time. The airline said it has not grounded its three other Dreamliners, and several carriers — including United Continental (NYSE:UAL), the only U.S. operator of the 787, and Japan Airlines (JALFQ.PK) — said they were monitoring the investigation.

Ethiopian Airlines’ 787, which arrived from Addis Ababa, had been parked at Heathrow for more than eight hours before smoke was detected on board. The Air Accidents Investigation Branch described it as “serious event” and added that he fire caused “extensive heat damage in the upper portion of the rear fuselage.” Television images showed fire damage to the plane’s carbon-fiber composite skin on its roof in front of the tail fin. Sources briefed on the inquiry told the Journal that the plane was plugged into ground power while parked, though it is not clear whether the power was on.

A spokesman General Electric’s (NYSE:GE) GE Aviation, a unit that builds data concentrators, told the publication that company was “not aware that GE components are part of the investigation.”

Investors have largely remained confident in the company despite the groundings and Friday’s fire. Shares have gained as much as 40 percent this year through Thursday, and while shares closed down 4.7 percent on Friday, Boeing’s stock has nearly recovered from that dip.

Follow Meghan on Twitter @MFoley_WSCS

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