Pilots fret over fire safety of Dreamliner planes, also used by El AL — report

Boeing acknowledges that engine fire extinguisher switch can jam; FAA orders checks; crews say authorities taking the cheap, not the safe, route

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

An El Al Boeing 787 Dreamliner at Ben Gurion Airport, near Tel Aviv on August 23, 2017.(Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
An El Al Boeing 787 Dreamliner at Ben Gurion Airport, near Tel Aviv on August 23, 2017.(Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Airline pilots have expressed concern over the safety of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft after an engine firefighting system was found to be faulty.

El Al Airlines, the Israeli national carrier, has nine of the long-haul, mid-size, twin-engine jets.

Boeing has already sent out an alert to airlines about the issue with its 787 Dreamliner aircraft, the UK’s Guardian newspaper reported Sunday, citing its sister paper The Observer.

However, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is not grounding 787s even though it says the switch presents a “risk to the flying public.”

Pilots warned that passenger safety is being compromised.

“If there was an engine fire on a transatlantic flight and the aircraft had one of the defective fire switches, then we would have to fly with a burning wing for up to three hours before we could safely land,” a British airline pilot, who was not identified, told the Observer.

In its alert, Boeing warned that the fire-extinguisher switch in the engines has failed in a “small number” of cases. Long-term heating can cause the switch to remain locked and obstruct the release of two fire extinguishers in each engine.

The US aircraft manufacturing giant said less than 1 percent of the switches have failed and that it is assisting airlines in dealing with the issue.

“We, as a pilot community, have found it all smacks of taking the cheap route and not the safe route,” said a pilot who spoke to The Observer on condition of anonymity.

“Boeing insists that the risk of an engine fire is very low, and that’s true, but it’s Boeing’s attitude to the risk that has upset us, especially in light of recent B737 Max issues,” a pilot told the Observer. “If the fire switch malfunctions, there’s no manual override to deploy the engine fire extinguishers and therefore no way of putting out a fire, but Boeing says that it’s fine, and the airlines agree. Such is the fear of Boeing’s power that no one dares speak out.”

The FAA has announced that the issue is “likely to exist or develop in other products of the same design” and that due to the fault “the potential exists for an airline fire to be uncontrollable.” The FAA put out an airworthiness directive, as well as mandatory instructions to operators. It has ordered airlines to check the switches every 30 days.

In a statement EL AL said it had been informed of the issue, performed the necessary checks, and that its fleet of 787s were found to be airworthy.

“The Boeing company notified all of its clients concerning a check that should be carried out relating to the fire-extinguishing system in the 787 planes,” El AL said. “After a thorough check was carried out, all of our planes were found to be in order.”

A Boeing spokesperson told The Guardian that “Boeing works closely with the FAA to monitor the fleet for potential safety issues and take appropriate actions.

“Engine fires are a very unlikely event and there have been no observed engine fires in the 787 fleet history,” the spokesperson said.

The FAA did not comment on the pilot concerns and said only that in February it asked for feedback from the airline industry after proposing its directive.

Boeing launched its fuel-efficient Dreamliner series of aircraft in 2011.

Dreamliners were grounded in January 2013 following fires caused by leaking batteries until the problem was resolved in April of that year.

In March aviation regulators and airlines around the world grounded Boeing 737 MAX planes after two crashes within four months involving nearly-new aircraft of the design. A total of 346 people were killed in Indonesian Lion Air Flight 610 on October 29, 2018 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 on March 10, 2019.

Preliminary reports into the accidents found that faulty sensor readings erroneously triggered an anti-stall system that pushed the plane’s nose down. Pilots of each plane struggled in vain to regain control over the automated system.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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