In difficult year for Boeing, 777 crash may not be major setback

Sun Jul 7, 2013 8:21pm EDT
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By Alwyn Scott

(Reuters) - The first fatal crash of a Boeing 777 jetliner on Saturday may not pose much of a setback to the company, in part because design features of the plane helped prevent burning and break-up that could have led to greater loss of life, experts said.

So far, there were no indications of mechanical failure aboard Asiana Airlines (020560.KS: Quote) flight 214 before it touched down short of the runway in San Francisco, skidded across the tarmac and erupted in flames, killing two passengers and injuring more than 180 people.

National Transportation Safety Board Chairwoman Deborah Hersman said Sunday that it was too early to say whether pilot error or mechanical failure were to blame. But she said there was no evidence of problems with the flight or the landing until 7 seconds before impact, when the crew tried to increase the plane's speed and the plane responded normally. The control tower was not alerted to any plane issues.

Aviation experts noted that confidence in the plane was increased by the fact that the fuselage remained largely intact after impact and the fire remained at bay until after many passengers had exited, thanks to engineering design and a flame retardant cabin interior that are standard on modern jets. The 777 also has a exceptional safety record that will support confidence in the jet.

"This, to me, is actually more of a story about tremendous safety," said Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst at the Teal Group in Virginia.

"You have this cataclysmic-looking crash where the overwhelming majority of people walk away. This is a very safe plane."

Hospitals were surprised that there were not more burn victims. "We were expecting burns, we did not see them," said Dr Margaret Knudson, chief of surgery at San Francisco General Hospital, which received the most patients of any hospital.

The accident came as Boeing Co (BA.N: Quote) is battling to sell a new 777 version to customers to compete with a rival A350 plane from Airbus EAD.PA. Earlier this year, Boeing's 787 Dreamliner was grounded by regulators after batteries overheated on two jets, raising safety concerns about that jet and prompting an overhaul of battery design.   Continued...

U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) photo shows the wreckage of Asiana Airlines Flight 214 that crashed at San Francisco International Airport in San Francisco, California in this handout released on July 7, 2013. REUTERS/NTSB/Handout