20 January 2013

Ethiopia: Big Dreams Stay Grounded

With the latest airworthiness directive from the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) of the United States came the grounding of Ethiopian's four B-787 Dreamliner aircrafts, the second global airlines in the world to own the long-range, mid-size, twin-engine jet aircraft. Investigations are being run on the technical failings of the aircraft, felt first in Japan, by United States authorities and the manufacturer, Boeing Commercial Airplanes.

Ethiopian Airlines has had its four new B-787 aircrafts grounded since Thursday, January 17, 2013, in what was said to be a short term precautionary safety measure.

All the Dreamliners have been parked inside Bole International Airport following the United States Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) emergency airworthiness directive on January 16, 2013, for all airlines operating B-787s to carry out special inspection procedures on the aircraft's battery system. This led to Ethiopian's management pulling the Dreamliners from their scheduled routes, particularly cross Atlantic flights.

The B-767 and B-777 planes are now planned to shoulder the burden, operating at longer hours.

"We'll deploy the 767 and 777 aircrafts, with 240 and 260 seats respectively, to the routes that were covered by the Dreamliners, with seats," Yissehak Zeweldi, vice president for Strategic Plan & Alliance at Ethiopian Airline, told Fortune on Thursday. "These aircraft will also be used for the maximum allowed 16 hours."

The four Dreamliner routes fly to Johannesburg Toronto, Frankfurt, Beijing, Lusaka and Harare, with the longest being the 11,500Km nonstop flight to Washington D.C.

"It causes a big loss to the airline," Yisak said.

Beyond the projected loss though senior pilots were not happy seeing the management, under Tewolde W. Mariam (pictured above left), dragging its feet in making such a decision, despite growing international concerns on safety beginning in the early week of January. A B-787 aircraft, operated by All Nippon Airways, Japan, had battery problems, which led to an emergency landing on January 7, 2013, at Boston Logan International Airport. It was the second incident in nine days. Other airlines, including Ethiopian, had experienced additional problems, including fuel leaks, cracks on cockpit windows, brake problems and an electrical fire.

"We had experienced some minor signs with the Dreamliners before, but not the kind that occurred on other airlines recently," Yissehak admitted.

Tewolde made similar remarks in a press release the national carrier issued a day after the incident on B-787 with All Nippon Airways.

"The Dreamliner is a highly capable and safe aircraft," Tewolde said in the statement, quoted by western media from CNN to The New York Times. "However, like any new technology aircraft entering into service it is normal to encounter some minor bugs here and there."

It was not until after the FAA decided to ground all Dreamliners operated by all carriers across the world that Ethiopian's management and officials at the Ethiopian Civil Aviation decided to ground B-787s here in Addis. Ethiopian followedJapan,United States,Qatar,India, andPolandin its decision to ground them, although it has not encountered battery problems after it began operating them in August 2012. Although different from glitches detected on the battery that has now led to grounding measures, Ethiopian had experienced series of delays on its scheduled flights toDubaiandRomein the past, in relations to engine and shock absorbers on B-787 legs, pilots flying them disclosed to Fortune.

The troubles come as a result of Boeing's use of new fiber technology to build the aircraft's body hoping to make it lighter and save fuel, while at the same time outsourcing the manufacturing of the many components to other manufacturers, according to these pilots.

For instance, the batteries that are now subject to investigation are manufactured by GS Yuasa Corp, a Japanese firm.

"Although the light body was designed to save fuel and carry more weight, hardly any of the flights from theUnitedStatehave been used to carry all the 270 passengers it is designed to fly with," a pilot flying B-787, one of the 60 Ethiopian certified so far, told Fortune.

With no exact date set for the Dreamliners to be back on their routes, the Airline is waiting for the FAA and Boeing Commercial Airplanes, the manufacturer of the Dreamliners, for a further directive. The directive is expected to specify the problem in the aircraft and to set inspection criteria, according to Endeshaw Yigezu, air transport director at Ethiopian Civil Aviation Authority (ECAA).

Engineers and regulators from the FAA and Boeing are checking six aircraft used by United Airlines. The outcome of which may lead to a redesign of the battery system, says Yissehak, which may be a disadvantage for Boeing in its competition with the European Airbus A330.

Aviation experts fear the worst.

"Most likely it's a very big headache and they're being cautious," said an aviation expert to The New York Times. "There's still the possibility that it's much worse and much more expensive for Boeing."

Ethiopian Airlines, the first carrier in Africa has six of this aircraft scheduled to be delivered before 2014. It will receive its fifth in March 2013.

Ethiopian recently announced that it has logged 5,560 flight hours on the 787s - with average daily aircraft utilisation of 14 hours - which is credited by aviation experts to represents a leap forward in the way "planes are designed and built."

The 787 Dreamliner came into operation on October 26, 2011, after a four year flight test. Their making has been plagued by cost overruns and years of delays, leading aviation experts to suggest "planes built after those delays resulted in the recent problems." The company denies the charges.

All 50 Dreamliners in operation around the world are now grounded, leading the stock value of Boeing company to drop by two percent, hours after the announcement of FAA, according to international media reports. Boeing has an order for 523 Dreamliner aircraft, each of which has a list price of 207 million dollars to 243 million dollars.

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