The world’s largest aircraft manufacturer, Boeing, will have a pleasant surprise for the global aviation industry next week. Its senior executives are scheduled to arrive in Addis Abeba in the coming few days to announce the positive results of their work, which will see the troubled Boeing 787, aka Dreamliner, back in the air, and taking off once again from Bole International Airport.
Ethiopian Airlines (ET) will be the first commercial carrier in the world to resume flying passengers with one of its 787 aircrafts, which have remained grounded at Bole International Airport since mid-January 2013, after incidents involving battery heat-ups and smoke emissions, sources disclosed to Fortune.
Planned for the last week in April or the first week of May 2013, ET’s resumption of operations with Dreamliner will be the first international flight after the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) of the United States grounded all 787s operating around the world, due to safety concerns.
Boeing’s new and highly advanced 787 aircraft first ran into problems on January 7, when a battery generated flames in an aircraft operated by Japan Airlines, and was spotted whilst parked at Logan Airport, Boston. A week later, another aircraft of the same model, owned by All Nippon Airways, was seen triggering a smoke alarm during a local flight in Japan.
All Nippon was the first operator to order and receive the Dreamliner, in October 2011. At the time, aviation experts had hailed the new model for its fuel efficiency and lighter body, constructed solely from composite materials. Ethiopian Airlines was second to order 10 of these aircrafts, although became third to receive them, in August 2012, after Japan Airways.
Boeing has received orders for close to 890 planes of the 787 model, although it has only delivered 50 of them so far.
Authorities at the FAA put out a directive, ordering the grounding of all Dreamliners operated by eight airlines across the world, until investigations were carried out to determine what was causing spontaneous fires in the battery.
“It was a frustrating experience,” Jim McNerney, chief executive officer of Boeing, said two weeks ago to the international media. “Regulators were putting safety first. They have the best interest of the flying public in mind.”
It took almost three months for investigators to identify what was causing the battery fires. Yet, a complete consensus, leading to firm conclusions, was difficult to reach, despite the National Transport Safety Board of the United States’ belief that a short circuit in the battery cell was behind the problem.
In the absence of an accord on the sources of the problem, Boeing went ahead and tried to fix the aircraft’s battery. The company used heat insulation and introduced a battery casing that experts hoped would vent hot gases out, in the event of a meltdown of the battery’s ion. Engineers at Boeing have so far conducted two test flights in the United States, according to sources. Its engineers will install the modified batteries in the aircrafts that are already in operation, and then move onto the ones still on the assembly line.
“We have a high degree of confidence in the technical solution we are testing,” McNerney told the international media at the end of March. “I think it will be sooner, rather than later.”
However, the newly modified batteries need to get clearance from the FAA, which Boeing will be obtaining in the coming few days, sources disclosed to Fortune. Subsequent to such clearance, engineers from Boeing and ET will continue working on the modifications of the batteries on the four 787s Ethiopian currently operates, before it resumes commercial flights in the last week of April, Fortune learnt.
News crews from major international media organisations have been invited to cover the announcement to be made here at the Hilton Hotel; and are expected to arrive in the days to come, Fortune also learnt.
Among the carriers who acquired this aircraft, believed to have saved 20pc in fuel efficiency, ET has a record flying time of 17 hours and logged 5560 total hours in the five months it operated Dreamliners. The airline did not face any of the problems that prompted the FAA to ground the planes.