Air India takes second 787 amid engine concerns
Air India flew away its second Boeing 787 Dreamliner from Charleston International Airport on Tuesday afternoon, despite continuing concerns about the General Electric engine that powers such airplanes.
The red, gold and white jet, one of two assembled in Everett, Wash., and flown to North Charleston in early July, was officially delivered to the Indian national carrier earlier in the day, a Boeing spokesman confirmed.
According to the flight-tracking website FlightAware, the plane was expected to land in Frankfurt, Germany, late Tuesday. Like the first 787 delivered from Boeing South Carolina this month, it will continue on to India from there.
Aside from confirming the delivery, Boeing did not publicize or celebrate it, and neither did Air India.
The Chicago-based airframer and the troubled government-owned airline had negotiated for months over what compensation Air India was owed for Boeing’s years of delays. Air India ordered 27 787s almost seven years ago but only took delivery of its first Dreamliner on Sept. 6. There are now three 787s on the Boeing South Carolina flight line, all assembled locally; the lone painted jet would be next in line for delivery.
Tuesday’s fly-away was somewhat unexpected given that history, but also because of the ongoing probe into the GEnx engines that power many 787s, including all made so far by Boeing South Carolina, and 747-8s.
The engine trouble began July 28 when one of the GEnx-1B power plants on the second S.C.-built 787 failed during a pre-flight taxi test, igniting a small fire by the runway and briefly closing Charleston International Airport. After a preliminary investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board determined the engine’s fan midshaft had fractured, causing it to shift backward and break both turbine blades and the stator vanes they hit.
Then, on Sept. 11, a Boeing 747-8 freighter operated by Air Bridge Cargo experienced a similar engine failure while preparing to take off from Shanghai, China. The larger 747-8s are powered by four GEnx-2B engines, which are similar to each 787’s pair of GEnx-1B engines.
The NTSB did not weigh in until Friday when it issued a four-page report that revealed it had found cracks in a third engine’s drive shaft and included two urgent safety recommendations.
The agency called on the Federal Aviation Administration to check all in-service GEnx engines not already inspected before further flight and to require repetitive inspections of the fan midshafts of all GEnx engines.
In the meantime, GE said it had “introduced changes in the production process that address environmentally assisted cracking, including changes to the dry-film coating applied to the mid-shaft, as well as changes to the coating lubricant used when the retaining nut is clamped to the mid-shaft.”
The FAA said in a statement Friday it would “soon issue an emergency airworthiness directive and ... take appropriate action.” But as of Tuesday evening, the agency had taken no action.
The series of events has puzzled analysts, such as Carter Leake, who covers the aerospace and defense industries for BB&T Capital Markets.
On Thursday, Leake had written a note advising investors to “brace for the possibility of an FAA directive that significantly impairs — or even grounds — the 787 and 747-8 fleets in the next few days.” The same note went on to say, “given Air India’s past behavior, we would not be surprised if Air India opted not to close on aircraft due for immediate delivery this month.”
But on Tuesday, a day which brought another Dreamliner delivery but no word from the FAA, Leake wondered whether GE is negotiating terms with the FAA and whether the engine manufacturer’s coating fix would be sufficient.
“What I struggle with is ... do you get to just apply the new coating and that’s fine?” he asked. “But what about all the in-service engines? I’ve got to believe that you’ve got to swap out the whole turbine shaft with a correctly coated one.”
“If the FAA thought this was a safety-of-flight issue, they would act,” Leake continued. “But if they really had the root cause, and everything was fine, you would’ve had something by now.”
As for Air India, Leake said the government-owned airline must be comfortable that Boeing and General Electric have their arms around the problem and will pay to fix it expeditiously — or is simply showing good faith.
“You can’t hold up a $200 million asset over a hypothetical problem,” he said.