Since the 787s returned to service, there have been a number of minor problems occurring with them or their engines, and we’ve resisted the temptation of gleefully writing about each of them, because they truly have seem to be one-off ‘teething problems’ and of little safety concern.
But when a problem occurred that caused a United 787 to divert from its planned flight from Denver to Tokyo and instead land in Seattle yesterday afternoon, that is significant. Although this report doesn’t say ‘was forced to make an emergency landing’ the fact is that the oil filter problem, whatever it may turn out to be, was sufficiently serious that the flight crew and their back-at-base technical support teams decided it was inappropriate to continue the flight.
You have to guess that, at present, there’s nothing an airline would less wish to do than to abort a 787 flight, due to the hyper-sensitivity we all have to 787 issues, whether battery related or not, so the choice to do so was obviously not lightly made.
Now, here’s the worrying thing. When the FAA allowed the 787 to return to normal service, it failed to do what many observers variously either expected or hoped. It failed to put any limits on the plane’s ETOPS certification – its permission to fly up to 180 minutes away from the nearest emergency landing spot.
It is unusual that a new plane be immediately certified to fly on ETOPS 180 minute routes (the 787 was granted instant 180 minute certification), and then, when the underlying promise/premise of the ETOPS certification – that the plane is so utterly unshakably safe beyond any possible measurement or fault as to not need any period of proving itself’ operationally on shorter ETOPS routes – is so spectacularly shown to be wrong (by the two battery fires) it was astonishing that the FAA didn’t then retreat back from the 180 minutes certification.
Its ETOPS certification means that no airlines should ever have to abort a flight in mid-air, because the potentially 180 minutes distance from the nearest place to land means that if the plane has to make an emergency landing, it may well be somewhere where it can not.
We’re reasonably sure that the oil filter problem is not indicative of a new system design fault, but we’re also sure that no 787s should have to have their flights aborted. Delays and cancellations due to faults being detected prior to a flight’s departure – those we can accept. But needing to abort a flight in midair? That’s scary, and United was fortunate that the fault appeared not long after the plane departed from Denver, while there were still plenty of airports nearby for the plane to land at.
But will this cause the FAA to revisit the 787’s ETOPS certification? Probably not.
We’ll allow United to have the last word (at least for now) on this issue. When United was asked if this problem and flight cancellation raised any concerns about the plane, instead of trotting out the standard non-answer used for everything (‘the safety and comfort of our passengers is our highest priority’) the spokeswoman said she did not immediately have any additional information.
Sometimes saying nothing sends a louder message.