Boeing 787 Safety Move Splits Airlines Over Honeywell Beacon

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Boeing Co. 787 operators are grappling with conflicting regulatory guidance after U.K. safety authorities called for the deactivation of an emergency beacon linked to a fire on a Dreamliner at Heathrow airport last week.

U.K. charter carrier Thomson Airways removed the Honeywell International Inc. locator within hours, while Japan Airlines Co. has inspected the device but faces a local legal requirement to have it on board, according to spokesman Kazunori Kidosaki. Poland’s LOT said it has made checks and the part is “fine.”

Implementing the recommendation to disable the beacon -- which signals a plane’s position after a crash -- may need an airworthiness directive, according to Dominique Fouda, a spokesman for the Cologne-based European Aviation Safety Agency. The emergency locator transmitter is part of a minimum equipment list, though can be made inoperable in some conditions, he said.

“Under European regulations, ELTs can be temporarily deactivated for maintenance while the aircraft continues to fly,” added Richard Taylor, a spokesman for the U.K. Civil Aviation Authority, in an e-mail. “The temporary removal can be extended for as long as necessary.”

‘Safety Compromise’

The U.K. Air Accidents Investigation Branch yesterday urged the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration to initiate action for the deactivation of the Honeywell part after determining it was the only system in the area of the fire on an Ethiopian Airlines Enterprise 787 on July 12, adding that the event “could pose a significant concern” had it occurred with the plane airborne.

“ELT installation was mandated as a safety improvement; their removal represents a safety compromise on what may be thousands of aircraft,” said Robert Mann of consultants R.W. Mann & Co. in Port Washington, New York, who has previously worked at major U.S. carriers American Airlines, Pan Am and TWA. “Why would the regulator mandate deactivation of a no-go item on an aircraft designed for overwater and polar routings?”

The CAA’s Taylor said flight and voice data recorders, the so called black boxes on a plane that help determine the cause of an accident, have their own location transmitters.

Ministry Decree

ANA Holdings Inc., the biggest 787 operator, hasn’t removed the devices because Japanese aviation law requires them aboard, said Tokyo-based spokeswoman Megumi Tezuka. If the FAA, the certification authority for the Dreamliner, ordered the removal of the components and Boeing issued a directive it would do so once Japan’s transport ministry published a decree, she said.

The FAA is reviewing the U.K. report “to determine the appropriate action,” spokesman Lynn Lunsford said yesterday.

Boeing would issue instructions to airlines about how to remove the beacon and provide assistance as needed, said Doug Alder, a spokesman for the Chicago-based company. The emergency locator can be removed quickly and won’t idle the 68-jet fleet.

LOT Polish Airlines SA, the first European carrier to get the 787, “anticipated the situation and we had already checked emergency locator beacons on our 787s before the U.K. safety board recommendation,” spokesman Robert Moren said by phone. The beacons “are fine, so we are not deactivating them.”

United Continental Holdings Inc., the sole U.S. operator of the composite-plastic plane, has performed visual checks of the transmitters on its six 787s “with no findings,” Christen David, a spokeswoman for the Chicago-based company, said by e-mail.

Training Exemption

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

Indian rules also stipulate that all aircraft be fitted with an ELT device that meets FAA standards. Only aircraft used for training or research are exempt, according to the rules published on the aviation regulator’s website.

Norwegian Air Shuttle AS, which leases Dreamliners from International Air Finance Corp., said it’s in “close contact” with Boeing and civil aviation authorities. “We will of course follow all the instructions that we are given,” spokeswoman Astrid Mannion said by e-mail today.

Qatar Airways Ltd., the only Middle Eastern 787 operator, declined to comment.

The ELT beacon, using lithium-batteries, is suspect because it’s the only power source in the area of the fire, though investigators are still probing whether the device combusted or was set alight by an outside source. The incident is the first involving more than 6,000 such Honeywell devices, the AAIB said.