Boeing 787s Set Take Off Again, But Is It Too Late For Air India Now?
Boeing Co.’s 787 Dreamliner is poised to resume flights in Japan, ending a more than three- month hiatus that grounded numerous planes owned by airlines around the world, including our country’s national carrier, Air India.
The 787, Boeing’s newest and most technologically advanced plane, is the first airliner to make extensive use of lithium-ion batteries.
Lithium batteries weigh less, store more energy and recharge faster than conventional batteries, making them attractive to aircraft makers and their airline customers.
The world’s total fleet of 50 Boeing 787s had been grounded since January 16 as Boeing and investigators tried to determine why one aircraft battery caught fire and another smoldered, forcing an emergency landing. Both cases concerned aircraft owned by Japanese airlines.
The battery system was designed with four layers of protection against overcharging, and overcharging wasn’t suspected in the two January incidents.
Boeing did some of the safety testing on the 787 battery system, but testing was also performed by a subcontractor, Thales of France, which made the 787’s electrical system, and by battery maker GS Yuasa of Japan.
To solve the problem, Boeing made changes to the battery design and added a steel enclosure to prevent any overheating from affecting the plane.
Too Little Too Late For Air India?
A technical team from Boeing is in India and will install new battery systems in the national carrier’s B-787 fleet by early May, which the airline officials say will give them ample of time to restart services on existing and new routes.
“A Boeing team is arriving in India, in addition to another team which is already present here. They will be making some key technical changes to the battery system of at least two aircraft at a time,” a senior Air India official said.
The grounding of the fleet was bad news for Air India.
The airline grounded the aircraft after the Directorate General of Civil Aviation asked Air India to stop using the Boeing 787 till the problem with a battery on board had been sorted out.
In February, it was revealed that Air India flew some of its Boeing Co 787 Dreamliner aircraft even after U.S. regulators grounded the global fleet the month before after the battery problems.
Dreamliners operated by India’s national carrier were flown to Mumbai for maintenance reasons, Arun Mishra, the head of India’s civil aviation regulator, had said.
“When the Dreamliners were grounded, they had come to Delhi from Frankfurt and Paris. Air India asked us for permission to take them to Mumbai because they have their maintenance facility there and also they were paying very high parking charges in Delhi,” Mishra, director general of civil aviation, told Reuters. “We gave them permission with strict orders that no passenger will be allowed.”
Air India had deployed the Dreamliners on long routes due to the efficient operation of the aircraft. After the grounding of the fleet, the national carrier incurred heavy losses as the Dreamliners had become their most lucrative source for cash flow. The airline was looking at the induction and use of the Boeing 787 aircraft to turn around its financial fortunes. The fleet was generating revenues of Rs 2 crore a day when it was in service.
The airline was operating its six B-787s from Delhi to Bangalore, Chennai, Dubai, Paris and Frankfurt. The Dreamliner has been instrumental in replacing the fuel-guzzling Boeing 777 on some international routes, thus saving on costs and increasing efficiency.
Air India had booked 27 Boeing 787s in a mega deal in 2006 and is supposed to get seven more planes in 2013, five in 2014, six in 2015 and three in 2016.
But for the carrier, the problems don’t end here. Most of the Air India’s fleet has been rendered inoperable due to negligence and poor maintenance.
As Business Week reports, the carrier, which has lost at least 281 billion rupees ($5.2 billion) since April 2007, is saddled with $8 billion in debt. It owes 42.5 billion rupees to jet fuel suppliers, Panabaka Lakshmi, India’s junior minister for petroleum and natural gas, said in parliament on March 8. Among its 16 grounded planes are leased jets it hasn’t returned to their owners because it can’t afford to refurbish them.
The return of the Dreamliner might turn our national carrier’s fortune around, or is it too little too late for Air India?