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Boeing asks for beacon checks on up to 1,200 jets

Invited guests for the world premiere of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner are reflected in the fuselage of the aircraft at the 787 assembly plant i
Invited guests for the world premiere of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner are reflected in the fuselage of the aircraft at the 787 assembly plant i

By Tim Hepher and Siva Govindasamy

PARIS/SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Boeing has asked airlines to inspect up to 1,200 aircraft across their fleets to gather data on Honeywell emergency beacons that have come under scrutiny following a fire on a parked 787 Dreamliner two weeks ago.

The blaze caused serious damage to the jet owned by Ethiopian Airlines at London's Heathrow on July 12.

Between 1,100 and 1,200 Boeing aircraft of all sizes have been fitted with the beacons. But Boeing is asking that airlines inspect as many as possible and report back within 10 days to help regulators decide what action to take, if any.

"Boeing is asking specific operators of 717, Next-Generation 737, 747-400, 767 and 777s to inspect aircraft with the Honeywell fixed emergency locator transmitters," a Boeing spokesman said in an emailed statement late on Sunday.

"The purpose of these inspections is to gather data to support potential rule-making by regulators," he added.

British accident investigators traced the fire on the Ethiopian plane to the area housing one of the units and recommended worldwide inspections of all lithium battery-powered emergency locator transmitters.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration instructed airlines on Thursday to remove or inspect Honeywell fixed emergency beacons in the model which caught fire, the 787, but has not so far widened its mandatory checks to other models.

On Monday, Honeywell said it fully supports the inspections recommended by regulators and noted that it is cooperating with the ongoing investigation of the Heathrow fire. The company noted the cause of the fire has not been conclusively determined and that its Emergency Locator Transmitters, or ELTs, have been in use since the mid-2000s and "have never before had any fire/heat related issues reported."

The beacons in question are designed to help rescue workers locate aircraft in the event of a crash.

The devices are installed on approximately 20 types of aircraft, including many Boeing and Airbus passenger jets and several types of business aircraft.

"Boeing's recommendation of fleet-wide checks of the Emergency Locator Transmitters suggests that Boeing thinks it is not a 787 problem, but an ELT problem," said Paul Hayes, director of safety at UK-based aviation consultancy Ascend.

The July 12 fire reawakened concern in the industry about Boeing's advanced carbon-composite Dreamliner, which was grounded for more three months this year after two incidents involving overheated lithium-ion batteries.

The UK's Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) said the London fire was not related to those batteries.

AIRBUS REVIEW

Airbus said it would carry out a review of the way the emergency beacons are installed on its planes, but stopped short of asking airlines to inspect them across its fleet.

"Our records do not show any incidents of this nature," a spokesman for the European planemaker said.

"However, as a precautionary measure, we will do an additional review of the integration of the device in order to determine whether there is a need to apply any lessons from the AAIB findings," the spokesman said.

The fire on the Ethiopian-owned jet broke out after it had been parked for eight hours at a remote airport stand. It caused extensive damage in the rear of the plane and scorched the top of the outer skin of the fuselage.

Japan's ANA Holdings Inc <9202.T>, which operates the world's biggest fleet of Dreamliners, said last week it found damage to the battery wiring on two 787 beacons during checks.

Damage was slight, but the beacons have been sent to Honeywell for inspection, ANA said.

Qatar Airways meanwhile denied that one of its Dreamliners had caught fire after industry sources said smoke had been reported near an electrical panel while the plane was on the ground in Doha.

The aircraft has not flown since July 21, according to web tracking data, an unusually long downtime for an active jet.

"I can unequivocally say that there was no fire. It was just a minor issue, not even an incident. We're working with Boeing to get it fixed very soon," an airline spokeswoman said.

No timeline for the repair was available.

Boeing declined to comment.

(Additional reporting by Tim Kelly, Regan Doherty and Alwyn Scott; Editing by Stephen Coates, Tom Pfeiffer and Dan Grebler)

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