How Will Boeing’s Woes Affect Airlines’ Fuel-Efficiency Quest?
The most recent Boeing 787 Dreamliner fire, coupled with other safety concerns, will slow “the introduction of some lightweight innovations for fuel efficiency,” Lux Research analyst Cosmin Laslau tells Environmental Leader.
In the latest in a string of unfortunate incidents for the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, an airplane operated by Ethiopian Airlines had a fire break out inside the plane, which was parked at London’s Heathrow Airport Friday evening. Also on Friday, the UK’s Guardian newspaper reports that a Thomson Airways Dreamliner bound for Florida was forced to turn back to Heathrow because of unspecified technical problems.
Unlike with the earlier incidents, when its lithium-ion batteries overheated and caught fire, British investigators say Friday’s fire was most likely not battery related. The concern this time is about the Dreamliner’s carbon-plastic composite construction, according to the Chicago Tribune.
The incidents continue to raise concerns about Boeing’s latest aircraft, much vaunted for its lightweight, carbon-composite body that, when combined with new engines, makes for 20 percent better fuel-efficiency and 10 percent less operating costs compared to traditional aluminum bodies. The Tribune reports that Boeing’s advanced carbon technology is being tested at a time when the company is busy booking more orders and building capacity to ramp up production of the 787, which it hopes will be it’s most profitable aircraft model.
Laslau says the Dreamliner’s continued safety concerns “will make the aerospace industry much more cautious going forward” and likely slow the adoption of carbon-fiber, fuel-efficient airplanes. “For example, we have already seen Airbus temporarily scrap its plans to use lithium-ion batteries in its A350, favoring older, more established technologies instead. However, while such cautiousness may delay revenue opportunities for some technology developers, it also creates new opportunities in safety monitoring systems.”
However, Laslau says airlines will continue to seek fuel-saving measures because the opportunity for cost savings is huge.
“Lufthansa, for example, spends about $10 billion per year on fuel,” Laslau says. “Therefore, aerospace companies will keep pursuing innovations such as electric taxiing systems, which use electric motors and auxiliary power units to reduce fuel consumption. However, the expectations for reliability track records and associated regulatory hurdles, will only get tougher.”
In June, a United Airlines Dreamliner had to make an emergency landing because of a brake system problem — the third time last month that the aircraft ran into problems, Agence France-Presse reported. The United Airlines flight was en route to Denver from Houston when the problem with the brake indicator popped up and it turned back to Houston as a precautionary measure. Before that, a Japan Airlines flight bound for Singapore was forced to turn back mid-flight because of problems with its anti-icing system and an All Nippon Airways flight was cancelled because an engine would not start.
The entire fleet was grounded worldwide for four months starting in January after its lithium-ion batteries overheated on two planes and one of them – a Japan Airlines plane — caught fire while still parked in Boston. Boeing said it could not ascertain why that happened but issued a modification that would prevent it from happening again. The FAA, which issued the global alert after the incidents happened, approved the battery system improvements in April.
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