Boeing 787 Probe Urges Disabling of Honeywell Beacon

A Honeywell International Inc. beacon has been linked to last week’s fire on a parked Boeing Co. 787 Dreamliner and should be deactivated on all of the planes, U.K. investigators said.

The emergency locater transmitter can be removed quickly and won’t idle the 68-jet fleet, Boeing said yesterday after the U.K.’s Air Accidents Investigation Branch urged that the units be disabled. The agency didn’t tie the fire at London’s Heathrow airport to the devices, saying the blaze “coincides” with the ELT’s location on the 787 and that the probe continues.

“The best outcome will be certainty that it was a one-off item, and that can’t be determined yet,” Howard Rubel, a New York-based aerospace analyst with Jefferies LLC, said in a telephone interview. “But this was a reasonable outcome.”

The July 12 incident was the first involving an emergency device installed in thousands of planes and added to the snags for Boeing’s marquee jet, which was grounded for three months after lithium-ion batteries melted down in two 787s’ power systems in January. Hours after the U.K. report, a Japan Airlines Co. 787 bound for Tokyo returned to Boston after an on-board indication of a possible fuel-pump fault.

Boeing rallied 2.7 percent to $107.63 at the close in New York yesterday on news of the U.K. inquiry’s preliminary report, then slipped 1.3 percent to $106.25 in extended trading as word spread about the aborted JAL flight. Honeywell’s shares rose 0.6 percent to $82.97.

Electrical System

While the ELT batteries have different lithium chemistry than those in the electrical system, the U.K. investigators cited the potential danger from last week’s fire on an Ethiopian Airlines Enterprise 787 and said U.S. regulators should lead a review into lithium-battery powered ELTs on other aircraft.

“Had this event occurred in flight it could pose a significant concern and raise challenges for the cabin crew in tackling the resulting fire,” the AAIB said. Shutting off the lithium-battery-powered transmitter is a precautionary step “until appropriate airworthiness actions can be completed.”

One airline, U.K. charter carrier Thomson Airways, said it had removed ELTs from its 787s. United Continental Holdings Inc. has performed visual checks of the transmitters on its six Dreamliners “with no findings,” Christen David, a spokeswoman for the Chicago-based company, said in an e-mail.

Japanese Law

ANA Holdings Inc., the biggest 787 operator, hasn’t received any Boeing request to remove the transmitters, spokeswoman Megumi Tezuka said by telephone. The carrier hasn’t received any request from Boeing to remove the device. Japan Airlines is conducting visual checks on the transmitters after U.K. investigators recommended deactivating the beacons, Spokesman Kazunori Kidosaki said by phone. Both the carriers said Japanese law requires the transmitters to be in service.

India’s aviation safety regulator will make a decision after Air India Ltd. receives a directive from Boeing, Arun Mishra, director general of civil aviation, said in a phone interview. Rohit Nandan, chairman at Air India, which operates seven 787s, didn’t immediately respond to two calls and a text message to his mobile phone.

The 787’s high public profile, value to Boeing and ground-breaking design as the first jetliner built chiefly of composite plastics have kept investors attuned to any flight disruptions, Jefferies’s Rubel said in a research note.

The AAIB’s action “has no impact on the operation of the 787 and it continues in service,” said Rubel, who has a buy rating on Boeing. “With current navigation and air traffic control systems, the ELT is only required on a minimal number of routes, we believe.”

Emergency Beacon

Honeywell’s emergency beacon broadcasts a signal to help rescuers locate a downed plane. The 3-pound, 3-ounce (1.45 kilogram) device uses its batteries for power, according to the company’s website.

The transmitter on the Ethiopian 787 is the only one to have been linked to a “significant thermal event,” the AAIB bulletin said. Morris Township, New Jersey-based Honeywell has manufactured 6,000 units fitted to a wide array of aircraft.

Removing the beacon is a “simple maintenance task” that takes about an hour, Doug Alder, a Boeing spokesman, said in a telephone interview. Boeing will issue instructions to airlines about the procedure and provide assistance as needed, he said.

‘Prudent’ Move

Bill Kircos, a Honeywell spokesman, said deactivating the ELTs on 787s and inspecting devices from all manufacturers is “prudent,” though it would be premature to “jump to conclusions.” The company expected no financial impact at this time from the AAIB’s recommendations to regulators, Kircos said by e-mail.

Dreamliner flights have continued worldwide since the fire at carriers including ANA and Addis Ababa-based Ethiopian, which has kept its other three planes in service.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration is reviewing the U.K. report “to determine the appropriate action,” Lynn Lunsford, a spokesman, said by e-mail. Planemaker Airbus SAS has “taken note” of the recommendations, and “a first look of our own records does not show any incident of this nature,” said a spokesman, Stefan Schaffrath.

Electrical Short

The U.K. investigators said it wasn’t yet clear whether last week’s fire was caused by a release of energy in the ELT’s lithium-manganese dioxide battery or by an external mechanism such as an electrical short.

The plane suffered “extensive heat damage” in the rear, including to its composite-plastic fuselage, the AAIB said. The ELT is the only aircraft system in the area of the fire with stored energy capable of sparking a fire, the agency said, adding that flight crew had not reported any technical issues and that ground power had been switched off.

A search of U.S. National Transportation Safety Board accident files didn’t show any cases of accidents or incidents linked to fires on ELTs during the past 10 years.

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