Investigators started work yesterday to establish the cause of a fire on a Boeing Dreamliner at London's Heathrow Airport, a new setback for the high-tech model after it was grounded at the start of the year because of battery problems.
The fire broke out on the plane, operated by Ethiopian Airlines, on Friday afternoon, when it was parked at a remote stand with no passengers on board, eight hours after arriving from Addis Ababa.
No one was injured. The plane was the first of the 787 fleet to resume flight after the battery-related grounding earlier this year.
"The aircraft has been moved to a secure hangar at Heathrow and the investigation has begun," said a spokesman for Britain's Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB).
The AAIB will lead the investigation, he said, working alongside the US federal aviation administration and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), Ethiopian Airlines and Boeing.
Analysts say Boeing will be keen to reassure airlines, travellers and investors over the cause of the fire as quickly as possible but it will be up to investigators to decide how much information to release and when. Under aviation rules there are restrictions on how much companies can say about the details of an ongoing accident investigation.
Meanwhile Ethiopian Airlines, one of Africa's top five carriers, said it would continue to fly its Dreamliner fleet. "We have not grounded any of our aircraft," the carrier said yesterday. "The incident at Heathrow happened while the plane was on the ground and had been for more than eight hours and was not related to flight safety."
Separately, engineers from Britain's Thomson Airways were inspecting their own Boeing Dreamliner after it had to turn back during a flight on Friday from Manchester in England to Sanford in Florida because of an unspecified technical issue. Thomson Airways is one of six European airlines owned by TUI Travel , the world's largest tour operator.
The two incidents are a blow for Boeing, particularly as the entire global fleet of Dreamliners had to be grounded for three months, ending in April, after one high-tech battery caught fire and another overheated.
Boeing shares closed down 4.7 per cent at US$101.87 on Friday, knocking $3.8 billion off the company's market capitalisation - its shares are still up 35 per cent this year. The Dreamliner's two batteries are in electrical compartments located low down and near the front and middle of the plane. Damage to the Ethiopian plane appears to be on top of the fuselage, close to the tail, according to video from the scene on Friday.
Mark Rosenker, a former NTSB chairman, said the Heathrow incident was extraordinary, coming so soon after the fleet had returned to service, but warned against jumping to conclusions.
"It's very early. No one knows where the fire started at this point," Mr Rosenker said, adding it could be something as simple as a coffee pot left on in a galley.
A spokesman for GS Yuasa, which makes the Dreamliner batteries, said he had not received any information on the London fire. The 787 is Boeing's biggest bet on new technology in nearly 20 years. It cost an estimated $32bn to develop and Boeing plans to use hundreds of innovations such as its carbon-fibre composite skin and electrical system to enhance other jets.
The 787 Dreamliner fleet was grounded by regulators at the start of the year after batteries overheated on two of the jets within two weeks, including a fire in a parked Japan Airlines plane in Boston.
Boeing was forced to halt deliveries of the jet while it was grounded and airlines stopped ordering the plane at that time.
Orders have since resumed and Boeing has logged 83 Dreamliner orders this year, bringing its current order book to 930 planes.