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787 Electrical Fires, Fuel Leaks Lead to More Groundings

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The outlook for Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliner is looking bleaker by the day.

Most recently, all 787s in Japan were grounded after another incident involving one of the aircraft led to an emergency landing.

Smoke was detected on-board by the aircraft’s computer systems, and a burning smell in the cockpit was reported by the 787 crew, leading to an emergency landing. The incident led to the grounding of all 787s operated by Japan’s two largest airlines.

It has been speculated that the incident may have been related to the high-capacity lithium-ion batteries that are used in the new aircraft. These can store much higher amounts of energy, can be recharged much more quickly, and are even much more lightweight than other types of batteries.

The trade-off is that the batteries present a fire hazard if they are over-charged.

The 787 relies upon electrical systems far more than older aircraft, so the lightweight batteries are critical to the aircraft’s current design.

Only a few days before the most recent incident, an unexplained fuel leak was discovered on a Japan Airlines 787 during an inspection.

Just a couple days before that incident, another fuel leak was discovered on a JAL 787, while in the U.S., one of United Airlines’ six 787s experienced problems related to electrical wiring.

And one day before that, a battery overheated and started a fire onboard a grounded, empty 787 operated by Japan Airlines in Boston, USA. The fire occurred in the same part of the aircraft in which the United Airlines 787 had experienced issues with wiring.

On January 11, the FAA ordered a full-scale inspection of all 787s. Industry experts point out that this is an unusual move for the agency so early in a newly debuted aircraft’s life.

Many parts for Boeing’s 787 are manufactured in Japan. Delays and potential large-scale order cancellations for the Dreamliner aircraft could strike a big blow to Japan’s aerospace industry, in a country still recovering from the devastation of the 2011 tsunami.

787s being grounded due to electrical/fire hazards is not a new problem. In 2010, a Dreamliner in Texas was forced to land after an electrical fire broke out on board and caused systems to begin failing before the aircraft could land.

Additionally, in 2012, some specific 787s experienced engine failures, resulting in a grounding by the NTSB.

Aerospace industry analysts have said it’s likely that it will take years for Boeing to break even on the aircraft due to these delays.

Others have said that these are normal “teething problems” experienced with new aircraft, and the issues will be quickly resolved.

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