Plagued by one mishap after another, Boeing Co.'s much-heralded 787 Dreamliner passenger jet for the 21st century is feeling new heat from federal regulators.
Days after one of the planes caught fire while parked in Boston and another experienced a fuel leak, the Federal Aviation Administration has launched an unusual “comprehensive safety review of Boeing 787 critical systems.” This includes a sweeping evaluation of the way that Boeing designs, manufactures and assembles the aircraft.
The review -- just 17 months after the FAA gave the go-ahead to the new $200-million-plus plane -- does not ground the 50 Dreamliners currently being flown by eight airlines around the globe.
Since the inception of its next-generation passenger jet, Boeing has touted the revolutionary way the Dreamliner is made and the way it operates. But those novel technologies will now attract greater scrutiny from U.S. regulators after recent events have raised questions about Dreamliner safety.
New planes, in general, have “teething” issues as they are introduced. But, industry analysts said, the type of review the Dreamliner is undergoing is rare, and passenger jets haven’t been subject to this sort of sweeping government review for decades.
Boeing said it will participate in the review with the FAA and believes the process will underscore customers’ and the traveling public’s confidence in the reliability of the aircraft.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and FAA chief Michael Huerta launched the effort Friday at a news conference in Washington, revealing plans for a “comprehensive safety review of Boeing 787 critical systems.” This includes a complete evaluation of the aircraft, including an assessment of the way that Boeing designs, manufactures and assembles the aircraft.
The move comes despite the “unprecedented” certification process in which FAA technical experts logged 200,000 hours of work over nearly two years and flew on numerous test flights, Huerta said. There were more than a dozen new special conditions developed during the certification process because of the Dreamliner’s innovative design.
“The purpose of the review is to validate the work that we’ve done,” Huerta said, “and to look at the quality and other processes to ensure that effective oversight is being done.”
Certification of the Dreamliner was completed Aug. 25, 2010, and the first plane was delivered to All Nippon Airways a month later. It was more than three years late because of design problems and supplier issues.
The Dreamliner, a twin-aisle aircraft that can seat 210 to 290 passengers, is the first large commercial jet with more than half its structure made of composite materials (carbon fibers meshed together with epoxy) rather than aluminum sheets. Another innovative application is the changeover from hydraulically actuated systems typically found on passenger jets to electrically powered systems involving lithium ion batteries.
For instance, Boeing has said electric brakes “significantly reduce the mechanical complexity of the braking system and eliminate the potential for delays associated with leaking brake hydraulic fluid, leaking valves and other hydraulic failures.” Because of these technologies, Boeing says, the new plane burns 20% less fuel than other jetliners of a similar size.
But the use of such extensive electronic systems was called into question when a smoldering fire was discovered Monday on the underbelly of a Dreamliner operated by Japan Airlines Co. after the 173 passengers and 11 crew members had deplaned at the gate.
The incident prompted the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board to investigate.
“We don’t know the cause of the fire, but it’s a serious issue,” said Scott Hamilton, an aviation industry consultant and managing director of Leeham Co. in Issaquah, Wash. “Did the FAA miss something? Did Boeing have an oversight in the design process? Was there a problem in the supply chain? These are questions we don’t have answers to.”
In December, the FAA ordered inspections of fuel line connectors because of risks of leaks and fires.
On the same day, a United Airlines Dreamliner flight from Houston to Newark, N.J., was diverted to New Orleans after an electrical problem popped up mid-flight. Qatar Airways, which had accepted delivery of a Dreamliner just a month earlier, grounded the aircraft for the same problem that United experienced.
Still, both LaHood and Huerta insist the Dreamliner is safe. Ray Conner, Boeing’s chief executive of commercial aircraft, attended the conference and said the company was “fully committed to resolving any issue related to the safety” of the Dreamliner.
The Chicago company has taken 848 orders for Dreamliners from airlines and aircraft leasing firms around the world. Depending on the version ordered, the price ranges from $206.8 million to $243.6 million per jet, depending on the version ordered.
Major parts for the plane are assembled at various locations worldwide -- including Southern California, Russia, Japan and Italy -- and then shipped to Boeing’s facilities in Everett, Wash., where they are “snapped together” in three days once production hits full speed, compared with a month the conventional way.
Boeing currently is making five Dreamliners a month. It plans to reach 10 a month late this year.
Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst with Teal Group Corp., a Virginia research firm, said the review will be beneficial for the Dreamliner program in the long run.
“There’s no showstopper here; it’s a short-term embarrassment for the company,” he said. “But then again, this program is full of short-term embarrassments.”