A newly delivered Qatar 787 Dreamliner is grounded at London Heathrow with an electrical fault said to be similar to the one that caused a United 787 to make a recent emergency landing in the US.

As reported in considerable detail by Bloomberg, the United incident occurred on 4 December and the Qatar incident on 9 December. Boeing is quoted as saying that it isn’t certain that it was an identical issue with a faulty generator.

Despite the rather sharp criticisms made by Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker in the report, such glitches are not unusual in the introduction of a new type of airliner into service, even one as late in terms of its development and certification as the ‘game changing plastic fantastic’ 787, a throw away line that Boeing marketing used in the middle of the last decade, and regretted at various times since then.

Of more concern to all, in Boeing and among its 787 customers, and in the FAA, will be the implications of electrical system unreliabilities or vulnerabilities to the ETOPS approvals for the type. All western twin-engined airliners are now delivered with ETOPS 180 capabilities, which if their national safety regulators agree, means that they can fly routes which are at no point more than 180 minutes away from a suitable airfield at single engine speed. Boeing has made a claimed capability of ETOPS 330 minutes in its 777s and 787s a selling point.

However ETOPS approvals are not permanent. They are subject to very strict operational reliability criteria being maintained, and engine or electrical failures for whatever reason  can cause the revocation of ETOPS approvals until it can be demonstrated to the satisfaction of air safety regulators that the necessary reliability is restored.

One of the reasons why ETOPS restrictions apply is that in the unlikely event of an engine failing during cruise, single engine flight will then occur at reduced altitude and significantly less efficient fuel consumption on the remaining engine because of increased aerodynamic drag.

Reliability is the fundamental basis for the massive shift to the use of twin engined designs in airline operations since the mid 80s. But it is a continuing requirement, under constant review, and the process of maintaining engines and critical systems to meet those requirements is meticulous and unforgiving.

Qatar Airways is expected to become the first airline to operate a 787 to Australia in commercial service from 1 February between Perth and Doha.  At this stage, China Southern is considered highly likely to follow shortly afterwards with flights between Sydney and Guangzhou, with Jetstar now expected to put its first Dreamliners into service on routes and times yet to be announced in mid-2013.

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