Boeing Dreamliner fire revives safety concerns

Concerns over the safety of the world’s newest passenger plane have increased after a Boeing 787 Dreamliner operated by Ethiopian Airlines caught fire at Heathrow airport on Friday, and another 787 carrying British holidaymakers to Florida returned home after a technical fault.

The Ethiopian Airlines incident led to closure of runways at the London airport, as arrivals and departures were suspended for about an hour and a half until emergency services put out the fire. Heathrow said that the aircraft was parked on a remote stand and no passengers were aboard. The disruption hit about 80 arrivals and departures at Heathrow, causing delays of up to three hours and leading to the cancellation of at least 27 flights.

While the cause of the blaze is yet to be determined, the fire raised concerns that recurrent problems with the high-tech lithium batteries had not been resolved. The BBC reported that the plane on fire at Heathrow was the first 787 Dreamliner to resume flights after the grounding.

In a separate incident on Friday afternoon, a new Thomson Airways Dreamliner plane returned to Manchester airport after taking off on a transatlantic flight. Thomson began services for the first time last month, after the long-delayed delivery of its first 787s.

Thomson Airways, travel giant TUI’s own airline, was the first British customer for Boeing’s new plane, and the company commented that its flight TOM126 to Sanford, Florida, ‘experienced a technical issue’, with the aircraft returning to Manchester airport as a precautionary measure. ‘Passengers have disembarked and our dedicated team of engineers is now inspecting the aircraft. Our customers will be moved to an alternative aircraft to ensure they get away on their holiday as soon as possible,’ a spokesperson said, adding: ‘The safety of our customers and crew is of paramount importance and we would like to apologise for the delay caused.’

According to flight tracking data, the plane circled the coast off north Wales, apparently to dump fuel before landing. Thomson charges its passengers a GBP10 premium each way to fly in the 787, with seats only available as part of a holiday.

The pioneering Boeing 787, a ‘plastic plane’ made mostly of carbon fibre with more systems running on electric circuits, has been heralded as a far quieter, more fuel-efficient aircraft. Production problems had initially delayed the commercial service by three years until late 2011. A series of incidents – including two battery fires on All Nippon airways in January this year, resulted in US safety authorities recommending the grounding of the entire worldwide fleet. Ethiopian Airlines was the last airline to withdraw its four Dreamliners from service and the first to restart operations in late May.

British Airways has ordered 24 of the planes, and took delivery of its first Dreamliner two weeks ago, while Virgin Atlantic is set to get the first of its 16 Dreamliners in September 2014.