Simon Calder: Dreamliner - don't fret about the jet, yet

The man who pays his way

You might think that the first rule of flying would be: "Get airborne." In fact, the prime design principle for the commercial airliner is that it can be evacuated quickly on the ground. We passengers, often disparagingly known as "self-loading freight", can easily take half-an-hour to board a plane, but are expected to self-unload within 90 seconds.

Every passenger aircraft, up to the largest in the shape of the Airbus A380, has been tested to ensure up to 853 passengers and a couple of dozen crew can clear the jet within a minute and a half of the captain ordering an emergency evacuation. The train, bus or car in which you will travel this weekend will not be so rigorously regulated. And next time you are in a mid-sized theatre, imagine that performance – with the added complication of a long slide to the ground.

The rules for getting everyone off the plane in an almighty hurry exist because of the often tragic consequences of fire aboard aircraft. Smoke and fire have claimed far more travellers' lives than terrorism – with many fatalities involving otherwise survivable crashes. Many lessons were learnt from the last fatal accident involving a British Airways jet, in 1985. As the Boeing 737, accelerated along the runway at Manchester, destination Corfu, it suffered an uncontained engine failure that started a fire. Tragically, 55 passengers and crew perished as the aircraft burned on the ground.

The grounding this week of the Dreamliner was down to the fear of fire, not due to the other snags that have afflicted the Boeing 787. While nervous flyers might not agree, the odd fuel leak, cracked cockpit windscreen and brake issues that the Dreamliner has suffered comprise run-of-the-mill teething problems.

Given the revolutionary design of the 787, there were always going to be more issues than on other new aircraft. But the lithium battery failure that caused heat damage and smoke on two Japanese-owned Dreamliners is an order of magnitude more worrying. "These conditions, if not corrected, could result in damage to critical systems and structures, and the potential for fire," said the US air authorities when they issued an emergency airworthiness directive grounding the plane. Safety agencies in Europe, India, Japan and Chile quickly followed suit.

Super shuffle

Your involvement with lithium-ion batteries is probably the same as mine: we ignore them, until they run out at a critical moment. So far, neither my lithium-powered laptop nor my mobile phone has spontaneously combusted, but if either did I would move a safe distance away until the danger subsided. In flight, where every moment is critical, this is not an option. And so all Dreamliner operations have stopped.

Travellers booked on 787s in the near future face problems. Not only will the alternative be less comfortable (and harsher on the environment), it could also involve a longer flight. Dreamliner owners are shuffling their fleets as they try to find substitute jets – and pilots to fly them. Some can replace the Dreamliner with a similar-sized plane, such as a 767 or A330, but spare aircraft are expensive assets to keep standing around and are strictly finite. Some departures are being downsized, such as United flights in the US, where 737s are among the replacement. Others are simply being cancelled: passengers booked on Japan Airlines' San Diego-Tokyo are finding that their reservation has gone west, yet they haven't. Qatar Airways, the only carrier operating the jet from the UK, has cancelled the daily flight to Doha.

Few other British travellers are, so far, affected because no UK airline has the aircraft. That is due to change next month, when Thomson takes delivery of its first Dreamliner. The jet enters service on 1 May with a 9.15am departure from East Midlands to Cancun. "We are still working to our original delivery dates," the company says, but I bet, behind the scenes, Thomson is also working on contingency plans.

Boeing's pride slides

So, is it time for 787 passengers to head for the nearest available exit? No. The world's best aeronautical engineers and safety officials are working flat out towards a swift and effective solution. There is no lack of incentive to find one. The airlines are losing £20,000 per plane, per day, for as long as the grounding drags on. The cost for Boeing is inestimable. Few sights in aviation are less dignified than a brand new aircraft standing forlorn and flightless – particularly on the runway, with its evacuation slides deployed.

For more on the 787 grounding: bit.ly/787QA

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Car Sales Executive - Franchised Main Dealer

    £30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity for...

    Recruitment Genius: Group Sales Manager - Field Based

    £21000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Located on the stunning Sandban...

    Guru Careers: Email Marketing Specialist

    £26 - 35k (DOE): Guru Careers: An Email Marketing Specialist is needed to join...

    Recruitment Genius: Tour Drivers - UK & European

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity to join a is a...

    Day In a Page

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
    Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

    The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

    Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
    Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

    A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
    How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

    How books can defeat Isis

    Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
    The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

    The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

    The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
    Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

    Young carers to make dance debut

    What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
    Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

    Design Council's 70th anniversary

    Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
    Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

    Dame Harriet Walter interview

    The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

    Bill Granger's winter salads

    Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
    England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

    George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

    No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
    Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links