Friday, January 11, 2013

Federal Aviation Administration to Review Boeing 787 Dreamliner

Updated January 11, 2013, 10:09 a.m. ET


The Wall Street Journal

The Federal Aviation Administration, increasingly concerned about safety and reliability issues surrounding Boeing Co.'s 787 Dreamliner, said Friday it will launch a top-priority review of the plane focusing on its electrical system and quality controls used in the manufacturing process.

The review will cover the 787's critical systems, including design, manufacture, and assembly.

"This review will help us look at the root causes and do everything we can to safeguard against similar events in the future." Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement released at the start of a press conference Friday that included Federal Aviation Administrator Michael Huerta and Ray Conner, head of Boeing's commercial aircraft arm.

"We are confident that the aircraft is safe. But we need to have a complete understanding of what is happening," Mr. Huerta said.

In its own statement, Boeing declared its confidence in "the design and performance of the 787," adding that it welcomes "the opportunity to conduct this joint review."

The unusual move by the FAA comes after the agency has spent months monitoring various electrical problems and other operational glitches affecting the planes, according to people familiar with the matter, but was specifically prompted by a battery fire on Monday aboard a Japan Airlines Co. 787 on the ground in Boston.

Industry and government officials said the review—slated to be headed by officials from the FAA's new-plane certification and transport directorate offices—marks the first time in recent years that the agency has gone back to reassess the safety of specific systems in a jetliner already in revenue service.

Nobody was hurt in this week's incident, but it ratcheted up pressure on the FAA to announce steps to find the root cause of the blaze and determine common factors that may have affected earlier problems stemming from improperly assembled wiring and other electrical issues.

The FAA's lead spokeswoman late Thursday declined to comment.

A Boeing spokesman declined to comment on "the nature and content" of the company's communications with regulators, but said "we are working with the FAA and our customers to ensure we thoroughly understand" issues pertaining to introduction of the plane into widespread service. Spokesman Marc Birtel added, "we are absolutely confident in the reliability and performance of the 787."

The review won't ground planes or halt production, but the FAA has broad latitude to take action as a result of any findings. That could range from ordering new production procedures to revising designs of some electric components, which potentially could prompt further production delays and additional costs for Boeing.

In addition to reviewing technical and safety questions related to the design of the 787's groundbreaking electrical system, the FAA also will delve into manufacturing issues such as how well subcontractors are integrated into Boeing's overall production system, according to one person familiar with the details.

The decision to launch the review is bound to stoke concerns on Wall Street about potential negative fallout to Boeing's reputation and stock price. But the move also carries some political risks for Michael Huerta, the recently confirmed chief of the FAA, who now must oversee a high-profile review that could reopen some safety and manufacturing issues the agency was supposed to put to bed before it certified the Dreamliner in late 2011.

U.S. aviation regulators raised questions about the reliability of the Dreamliner during long transocean flights months before the advanced new jet suffered a spate of electrical and other problems this week, according to people familiar with the matter.

The ability of the Dreamliner to fly long routes, such as the 7,400-mile trek between Houston and Auckland, New Zealand, was touted as one of the plane's game-changing characteristics by Boeing and airline customers alike, with the jet's lightweight body and fuel-efficient engines linking cities out of the range of similarly sized aircraft.

Reaching that ambitious goal quickly now will be a challenge, according to government and industry officials, limiting the routes available to airlines just as Boeing boosts production to satisfy carriers that have waited years for their Dreamliners after a succession of delays.

Electrical issues, leaking fuel lines and a series of other malfunctions have caused a string of operational problems and emergency landings stretching back several months.

Regulators and airlines around the world, including the eight who fly the 787 today, will look to the FAA for guidance because the plane is built in the U.S. and the agency leads the certification of the new jet.

From its inception, the 787's advanced design, featuring weight-saving carbon-fiber composite materials and two fuel-efficient engines, was intended to make it suitable to fly practically any global route—crossing long stretches of ocean or spanning remote polar regions.

Chicago-based Boeing, by the middle of the past decade, had hoped that soon after introduction into service, safety regulators would allow 787s to fly up to 330 minutes, or 5½ hours, from the nearest emergency-landing strip.

When the first Dreamliner began carrying passengers in October 2011, 3½ years behind schedule, the FAA and overseas regulators permitted the jets to fly no longer than 180 minutes, or three hours, from any suitable airport. At the time, Boeing said it expected to extend that to 330 minutes by early 2012, citing work under way to modify some fuel-gauge software.

But FAA experts have been monitoring a variety of reliability issues that arose in the past few months and attracted attention inside and outside the agency, prompting FAA officials to adopt a go-slow approach in extending the three-hour restriction, according to people familiar with the matter.

The FAA's concerns, these people said, moved beyond the fuel-system-related software to include a range of power-supply issues along with questions about quality controls during Boeing's manufacturing process.

For now, Dreamliners remain under the 180-minute rule, a substantially tighter restriction than the FAA imposes on the Boeing 777, the 787's larger twin-engine sibling, which started flying in 1995 and is now offered with 330-minute certification only as of late-2011.The lead-up to the 787's original approval suggested both Boeing and the FAA believed the same factors would play out. Both Rolls-Royce and General Electric Co. engines offered on the Dreamliner were granted approved for 330-minute extended operations ahead of their first deliveries to their respective launch customers, All Nippon Airways Co. and Japan Airlines. During initial testing and certification, Boeing flew the 787 for 345 minutes on one engine, and five of six power generators disconnected, according to Mr. Sinnett.

That rules out airlines flying the 787 between, for example, Dallas and Sydney—a route Qantas Airways Ltd. now flies with the larger four-engine 747.

Continental Airlines, now part of United Continental Holdings Inc. and the U.S. launch customer for the 787, highlighted its hopes for the jet by naming Houston-Auckland as the first route for the plane. That plan has since been shelved for other reasons, but United has identified routes from the U.S. to Australia as another target market for its 787s, six of which are now flying.

A United spokeswoman said the airline doesn't comment on future route plans but said that it "looks forward to more opportunities to where we could fly" with the Dreamliner.

Mike Sinnett, a Boeing vice president and the 787's chief engineer, said Wednesday in a conference call the FAA wanted to take into account the early performance of the Dreamliner.

He called getting the 787 certified to be flown beyond 180 minutes "a procedural question." and said discussions with the FAA center on determining how early teething troubles are factored into the Dreamliner's certification to fly extended missions.

When the 777 was certified by the FAA years ago for extended overwater routes, the reliability of its engines was the primary consideration. The frequency of in-flight shutdowns was painstakingly tracked for each engine manufacturer, and those results largely determined when and which additional routes the planes would be permitted to fly.

But now, it turns out that some of the biggest concerns about the 787's reliability center on its redundant electrical grids, as well as the ability of batteries to power key onboard systems in case of an emergency requiring a lengthy diversion to a backup airport.

Rival plane maker Airbus, a unit of European Aeronautic Defence & Space Co. also hopes to be able to fly long routes far from suitable diversion airports. The European plane maker is developing its A350 XWB jet, itself delayed until 2014 after design issues, which aims to be able to operate as far as 350 minutes from emergency fields.

Achieving beyond-180-minute certification is also key for Boeing's next act: the larger 787-9, slated to be delivered in 2014 to launch customer Air New Zealand Ltd.

The Auckland-based carrier had already flagged that it wanted to fly ultralong, overwater routes by pushing Boeing to certify the 777 to the full 330 minutes, allowing it to fly to parts of Africa and South America that that were previously impossible with a two-engine aircraft.

Air New Zealand spokeswoman Kelly Kilgour said, "It is simply too early for us to comment on the performance capability of the" Dreamliner.

On Friday, Japan's All Nippon Airways reported two new cases of problems with the aircraft. ANA spokeswoman Ayumi Kunimatsu said a small amount of oil was discovered leaking from the left engine of a 787 flight from southern Japan's Miyazaki airport to Tokyo.

The jet returned to Miyazaki, but after checks found no safety risk it flew to Tokyo. ANA said on another flight, to Matsuyama on the island of Shikoku, glass in a cockpit window cracked and the aircraft was grounded for repairs.

—Jack Nicas and the Associated Press contributed to this article.


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