The Boeing 787 program suffered another setback Monday morning when a fire was discovered in a Japan Airlines Dreamliner just minutes after 173 passengers disembarked from their flight into Boston.
The fire, in an electrical component compartment, was extinguished relatively quickly, and a firefighter’s skin irritation was the only injury reported.
But the incident is just the latest in a series of potentially dangerous malfunctions on the technologically advanced but buggy jet. Other 787s have experienced electrical problems, most notably a fire during a November 2010 test flight that further delayed the program’s first delivery.
“The real key question is whether there’s a systemic connection, and we just don’t know,” said Scott Hamilton of Issaquah, Wash.-based aviation consulting firm Leeham Co.
The National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration are reportedly looking into Monday’s mishap, as are Boeing and Japan Airlines, the second carrier to get the Dreamliner in March.
“We’re aware and we’re working with the airline to get more information,” Boeing spokesman Doug Alder said. A Japan Airlines spokesman did not respond to a request for more information Monday.
Boeing makes the 787 in North Charleston and Everett, Wash. The jet in question was made in Everett and delivered Dec. 20, according to The Wall Street Journal and the All Things 787 blog.
Flight 008 arrived at Boston Logan International Airport from Tokyo “without incident” at around 10:05 a.m., said Richard Walsh, a spokesman for Massport spokesman, the state port authority. All passengers were off the plane by 10:15 a.m, he said.
Around 10:30 a.m. a mechanic “noticed a light smoke condition increasing from the underbelly of the plane,” according to one of the @BostonFire tweets. The smoke entered the cabin, Walsh said.
Crews from the airport and city fire departments responded, for a combined total of 40 firefighters and 15 fire trucks, Walsh said.
Crews used infrared technology and sensors to identify a “heat signature” in the midsection of the airplane, Walsh said. According to another @BostonFire tweet, they found the fire “in a compartment with batteries and other electrical components.”
While putting out the fire, “one of those batteries exploded, so they extinguished that fire as well,” Walsh said, bringing the emergency to a close around 11 a.m.
In just the past six months, Dreamliner glitches have included an engine failure during a pre-delivery taxi test in North Charleston and fuel leaks that led to an FAA airworthiness directive. Boeing officials and several analysts have said new airplanes typically struggle with such problems at the beginning. Saj Ahmad, the London-based chief analyst with strategicaeroresearch.com, seemed to put Monday’s fire in that category.
“Given the heavy use of electrical systems throughout the 787, it’s not that much of a surprise to see these kinks,” he wrote in an email, suggesting they’ll be resolved as airlines become accustomed to the plane and Boeing’s production matures.
“That this happened on the ground and not in the air also indicates to me at least, that this is a post-flight issue that posed no flight risk as auxiliary systems are rarely used in flight unless a prior power failure exists, which is not the case with this flight,” he said.
But others, like Carter Leake, who covers the aerospace and defense industries for BB&T Capital Markets, see the problems piling up and are starting to wonder what’s going on.
“At what point do we stop saying ‘growing pains’?” Leake asked. “The market does not give ‘growing pain’ mulligans on fires for any reason.”
Reach Brendan Kearney at 937-5906 and follow him on Twitter at @kearney_brendan.