Air India has pledged not to accept any of the Boeing 787 Dreamliners it has on order until U.S. government investigators determine why one of those jets’ engines failed during a pre-flight taxi test in North Charleston last weekend, according to reports out of India Thursday.
An Air India spokesman could not be reached to confirm that stance, and Boeing would not comment on the reports.
But if the government-owned carrier has taken that position, it could mean even further delays before the first Dreamliner delivery from Boeing South Carolina.
The local plane-making plant was supposed to hand over its first 787 to Air India in June, but the Indian government had not yet accepted Boeing’s offered compensation for more than three years of delivery delays.
That still has not happened, and this week the government of the fast-growing South Asian nation was consumed with a more pressing concern: a two-day power outage affecting 684 million people.
Those circumstances led one industry expert to question Air India’s motive for citing the ongoing National Transportation Safety Board investigation Thursday.
“They’ve played every hand in their deck of cards to stifle the 787 deliveries and this just seems to be another excuse,” Saj Ahmad, a consultant with StrategicAero Research in London, wrote in an email.
One of the reports, from Mumbai-based Firstpost, said the engine incident “has led Air India to convey to the manufacturer that it would take deliveries only after the cause of the mishap was established and rectified.”
The second S.C.-built Dreamliner rolled out of the North Charleston plant’s final assembly building a month ago. It sat on the campus flight line for most of July until Saturday’s abridged voyage.
Around 4 p.m., the red-finned jet was rolling down the runway in preparation for its first flight when hot shards were ejected from one of its General Electric GEnx-1B engines, sparking a small fire in the nearby grass and shutting down Charleston International Airport for more than an hour.
The engine suffered “significant back-end damage,” according to GE Aviation spokesman Rick Kennedy.
The debris did not pierce the engine’s casing, and no one was hurt. But given the 787 program’s history of technical glitches or supply-chain problems, the incident made international headlines.
The NTSB sent an investigator to North Charleston Sunday to gather information and launched a formal investigation into the mishap on Tuesday. The agency named David Helson investigator in charge and assigned an NTSB aircraft powerplants expert and a metallurgist from the NTSB materials lab to the case.
GE Aviation flew pieces of the engine to its headquarters in Cincinnati Monday, according to Kennedy, and the rest of the engine was trucked to Cincinnati Wednesday. The NTSB team was there Thursday leading the disassembly and examination of the engine, NTSB spokesman Terry Williams confirmed.
One of the plane’s so-called black boxes, which includes a cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder, was shipped to Washington, D.C., for analysis in an NTSB lab.
While the engine parts are scoured for stresses and anomalies, the black box would reveal speed and braking information, as well as “any parameters associated with engine performance,” NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman said this week.
Early theories about the cause of the engine failure range from a defective part to human error. Boeing and GE spokesmen have said there are no indications that there is a broader problem with the engine type.
Whereas All Nippon Airways grounded five of its 787s late last month to replace the gearboxes in their Rolls-Royce engines, none of the 80 GEnx engines in service now have been grounded.
Japan Airlines has continued to fly the four 787s it has received so far. (The other GEnx engines in service are a slightly different model and power Boeing’s new 747-8 jumbo jets.)
Ahmad, the analyst, said that state of affairs “makes Air India’s position look even more untenable.”
“Sad to say, but as much as they think they have grounds to wait for answers, they have no merit,” he wrote.
Whether the NTSB investigation will be done before the Air India compensation issue is resolved is not known.
India’s Cabinet Council for Economic Affairs is expected to take up the money matter soon, but that has been the expectation for much of the summer. Three completed Dreamliners, one assembled locally and two made in Everett, Wash., sit ready for pick-up in North Charleston.
Meanwhile, Kennedy has said he expects the investigation to proceed quickly, calling it an “around-the-clock operation.”
Reach Brendan Kearney at 937-5906 and follow him on Twitter at @kearney_brendan.
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