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Originally published July 12, 2013 at 10:30 AM | Page modified July 13, 2013 at 8:13 AM

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787 fire at Heathrow reignites concerns about Boeing plane

Aviation analysts were quick to point out that the blaze appeared to have started in the upper fuselage of the plane, away from the 787’s lithium-ion batteries.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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An unexplained fire on an empty Boeing 787 at Heathrow Airport in London shut down the airport’s runways for an hour Friday, sent the company’s shares tumbling and put the problem-plagued Dreamliner jet back in the spotlight.

Aviation analysts were quick to point out that the blaze appeared to have started in the upper fuselage of the plane, away from the 787’s lithium-ion batteries. That’s a key observation, as overheating batteries on two Dreamliners in January led to a four-month grounding of Boeing’s entire 787 fleet.

Nevertheless, the incident comes as unwelcome news for Boeing, barely six weeks after its initial 787 customers finished returning their fleets to the air with the company’s fix for the batteries.

As firefighters extinguished the flames and British and American investigators began seeking the cause of the fire, nervous investors knocked 4.7 percent from the company’s stock price, dropping it from the all-time high it set before news of the blaze.

No passengers were on the plane, Ethiopian Airlines’ Queen of Sheba, which had been parked in a remote area of the airport for more than eight hours when smoke was detected, according to a message posted on the airline’s website.

Television images showed nearly a dozen fire trucks on the scene at Heathrow and firefighters standing around the plane. Fire-retardant foam appeared to have been sprayed.

But no details were available late Friday about the fire’s origin or the extent of the damage inside the plane.

Boeing spokesman Marc Birtel said in an email that the company had personnel on the ground at Heathrow and “is working to fully understand and address” the situation.

The Air Accidents Investigations Branch, a British agency, is handling the investigation, according to a spokesman for the U.S. National Safety Transportation Board, which sent a representative to assist.

News photos showed damage on the outside top of the upper fuselage, just in front of the tail.

Based on that, aviation analyst Scott Hamilton said he suspects the fire wasn’t caused by the lithium-ion batteries, which are in two locations down in the cargo-bay area of the plane.

“That’s the important part,” said Hamilton, an analyst at Leeham News in Issaquah. Another battery-related fire “would almost certainly put the plane back on the ground again.”

Analyst Douglas Harned of Bernstein Research had a similar initial take: “Our assumption at this time is that there is no connection between the fire and the battery issues of the past.”

In a note to investors, Harned wrote that fire damage appears to be near the vertical stabilizer, on the left side of the top of the airplane.

Some 787s have a crew rest area inside that section of the upper fuselage. The Wall Street Journal reported online that Ethiopian doesn’t use the space that way.

“Most importantly, the two key lithium ion batteries are far away from the location of the fire,” Harned’s note continued.

A fire in the batteries “should have been contained by the new casing and, most importantly, smoke would have been vented outside of the airplane. We have heard no evidence of such smoke.”

Richard Aboulafia, an aviation analyst with the Teal Group, said the speed with which firefighters extinguished the fire reinforced that theory.

“It went out pretty quick,” he said. “It wasn’t a caldron of chemicals the way the batteries were in Boston and Japan” when overheating incidents prompted the Federal Aviation Administration to ground the plane.

Aboulafia said four types of problems could have caused the fire: something as small as “the coffee maker gone haywire”; a manufacturing or installation defect in that particular jet; a different systemic defect in the 787 model; or — the worst scenario — another battery problem.

A recurrence of the battery problem “would have been absolutely the worst thing that could have happened to Boeing,” he said.

How serious a problem Boeing may now face largely depends on where the flame originated and what caused it.

If the fire started in the fuselage wiring inside the top of the plane, that would not indicate as intense of a blaze as if it began inside the plane and burned all the way through to the plane’s exterior, Aboulafia said.

“The immediate question is, is this something that can be narrowed down to some sort of human issue or system issue?” Hamilton said. “If it’s a system issue, that could take a while to determine what that is. And then the question that pours out of that is, are the regulatory authorities going to put the plane on the ground?”

That last question caused a slight panic as news of the fire reached Boeing stockholders. Shares dropped from an all-time high $108.15, which topped the stock’s previous 2007 peak, to $101.87 at market’s close, down $5.01 or 4.7 percent.

Adam Pilarski, senior vice president of Avitas, an aviation advisory firm, said Boeing’s lack of answers after the January battery malfunctions has likely contributed to stockholders’ worries.

Boeing has not identified the root cause of the battery incidents. Instead, it redesigned the battery and its charger. The changes included more heat insulation between cells and charging the battery to a lower maximum voltage.

Though Friday’s incident may be completely unrelated to the 787’s previous battery issues, Pilarski said, until the cause is identified, there’s plenty of room for concern.

“This can be totally benign, but because you didn’t answer the question of what was wrong the first time, you’re subject to these speculations,” he said. “That’s not a comfortable situation to be in.”

In a separate incident Friday, U.K. tour operator Thomson Airways confirmed that one of its 787 Dreamliner planes traveling from England to the U.S. had to turn back after experiencing a technical issue.

Thomson Airways said that Flight 126 traveling from Manchester Airport to Sanford, Fla., had returned to Manchester “as a precautionary measure.”

It did not specify the nature of the technical issue, but said all 291 passengers had disembarked from the plane and engineers are inspecting the aircraft.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Colin Campbell: 206-464-2033 or ccampbell@seattletimes.com

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