Boeing Dreamliner
A Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner taxis after concluding its first flight in 2013 at Boeing Field in Seattle, Washington Stephen Brashear/Getty

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has ordered urgent modifications to Boeing 787 Dreamliners equipped with the latest engines from General Electric (GE) to avoid a catastrophic mid-air failure. The swift rectification is required for the GEnx-1B PIP2 engine, which has been dogged by ice-related issues.

No accidents have occurred as a result of the problem so far, but an in-flight incident on 29 January sparked the latest action. "Ice shed from the fan blades… causing the blades to rub against the fan case, resulting in engine vibration," GE Aviation spokesman Rick Kennedy told CNN.

Flying at an altitude of 20,000 feet, the engine shut down and would not restart, forcing the plane to rely on its remaining engine to land safely.

Rubbing blades

A document issued by the FAA on 22 April said: "Susceptibility to heavy fan blade rubs, if not corrected, could result in engine damage and a possible in-flight non-restartable power loss of one or both engines. We are issuing this AD [airworthiness directive] to correct the unsafe condition on these products."

It added: "In this case both GEnx-1B PIP2 engines may be similarly damaged and unable to be restarted in flight. The potential for common cause failure of both engines in flight is an urgent safety issue."

Ice problem for fleet

Airlines carrying two of the problematic GE engines must make the repairs or replace at least one engine with an older GEnx version, which is not susceptible to icing, on each plane, Bloomberg reported. Carriers using the faulty engines have 150 days to make the changes.

The orders only apply to aircraft in the US, but other countries usually take note from the FAA when it comes to safety issues. According to the FAA document, about 176 Dreamliners for 29 airlines could be affected worldwide. Airlines must also brief pilots on preventing engine icing while flying above 12,500 feet within a week.

The Dreamliner aircraft has a troubled service history. During the first year of the Dreamliner's service in 2011, the fleet was grounded after faults in lithium-ion batteries caused fires in five different aircraft over five days.