* U.S. regulator grounded Boeing's Dreamliner fleet in Jan
* Battery faults sparked Dreamliner safety concerns
* Boeing says planes safe to fly, fix found
By Aaron Maasho
ADDIS ABABA, April 27 Ethiopian Airlines
on Saturday became the world's first carrier to resume
flying Boeing Co's 787 Dreamliner passenger jets, landing
the first commercial flight since the global fleet was grounded
three months ago following incidents of overheating in the
batteries providing auxiliary power.
The flight from Addis Ababa to Nairobi was the first since
regulators grounded all Dreamliners on Jan. 16 after two
lithium-ion battery meltdowns that occurred on two jets with
other airlines within two weeks that month.
U.S. regulators approved a new battery design last week,
clearing the way for installation and a resumption of Dreamliner
flights by airlines around the world.
The battery faults raised fears of a possible mid-air fire,
drawing worldwide attention to Boeing and denting the reputation
of its flagship plane.
"I wasn't aware that I was going to be on the 787 Dreamliner
until on my way to the airport. It was a good service and the
flight was pleasant," said Senait Mekonnen, an Ethiopian
restaurateur, moments after the plane landed.
The fully booked flight arrived at Nairobi's Jomo Kenyatta
International Airport just after 9.30 GMT, with passengers
giving the crew a round of applause upon landing.
The grounding of the Dreamliner fleet has cost Boeing an
estimated $600 million, halted deliveries of the aircraft and
forced some airlines to lease alternative planes.
The Dreamliner cost an estimated $20 billion to develop and
represents a quantum leap forward in design, offering a 20
percent reduction in fuel burn and added cabin comforts such as
higher humidity, larger windows and modern styling.
But by sparking fears of a dangerous mid-air fire, the
battery problems drew worldwide attention to both aircraft
safety and the technology behind lithium-ion batteries, which
are widely used in laptops, mobile phones, electric cars and
The scrutiny turned from what are often called normal
"teething pains" for a new plane into a serious crisis for
Boeing. As the plane goes back into service, what caused the
fire is still unknown.
The battery that overheated on a parked Japan Airlines
787 in Boston caught fire and burned for more than hour
before firefighters put it out. The plane was on the ground and
empty. The second incident, which has not officially been termed
a fire, occurred during a flight in Japan.
An odour of smoke in the cabin and warnings in the cockpit
prompted the All Nippon Airways pilots to make an
emergency landing and evacuate the aircraft. Boeing said both
incidents showed its safeguards had worked.
CAUSE NOT YET FOUND
After the second incident, airlines were swiftly barred from
flying the 250-seat aircraft, which carries a list price of $207
million. The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB)
launched a full-scale investigation to find the root cause of
the Boston fire and examine the process by which the Federal
Aviation Administration (FAA) approved Boeing's design.
The NTSB has not yet found the cause, and after hearings
last week the investigation continues.
The last time an airliner fleet was grounded was more than a
generation ago, when the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration
banned the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 jet in 1979 after a crash in
Chicago killed 273 people.
Boeing spent thousands of hours and millions of dollars
redesigning the battery system, drawing on its vast staff of
engineers and experts in everything from fighter planes to
rockets and satellites.
The changes include a revamped battery less prone to heat
build-up, a redesigned charger and a stainless-steel enclosure
capable of withstanding an explosion and equipped with a metal
exhaust tube to vent fumes and gases outside the jet, if the
International airlines have been slowly putting the
Dreamliner back into their schedules. United Airlines,
the only U.S. carrier with the jet, said it will begin
commercial flights on May 31. All Nippon Airways plans to
conduct its first test flight of the revamped 787 on Sunday but
has yet to decide when to resume passenger flights.
Ethiopian Airlines previously said its fleet did not suffer
any of the technical glitches experienced by other Dreamliner
jets, though it withdrew the planes from service to undergo the
changes required by the FAA.