787 ‘squawks’ are mere nuisances, industry says

By Michelle Dunlop Herald Writer

For the second straight week, a Boeing Co. 787 has suffered a malfunction, fanning safety concerns.

“We’re having what we would consider the normal number of squawks on a new airplane, consistent with other new airplanes we’ve introduced,” Jim McNerney, Boeing’s CEO, told CNBC in an interview Friday.

McNerney’s remarks came a day after the company drew harsh criticism from key customer Qatar Airways. One of that carrier’s 787s was grounded after experiencing a generator problem on the delivery flight. The incident with Qatar’s 787 apparently was similar to the generator failure that caused a United Airlines 787 to make an emergency landing Dec. 4.

“Two aircraft having the same problem — the same major problem — so quickly is a cause of concern,” Akbar Al Baker, Qatar’s CEO, said Thursday.

On Friday, The Wall Street Journal reported that Boeing is investigating electrical issues on four 787s in all, including the United and Qatar planes. Having first looked into the failed generators, Boeing also is examining electrical panels as part of the problem, the publication reported, citing unnamed sources.

Industry analysts, however, have tended to view 787 glitches as McNerney does. “Squawks,” as they are known in the aerospace business, are issues that require fixing but aren’t show-stoppers.

Local analyst Scott Hamilton of Leeham Co. recently described the 787’s woes as “more embarrassing to Boeing than substantive.”

Industry observers with consulting firm Innovation Analysis Group pointed out that the 787 is a sophisticated aircraft, with “ground-breaking” systems. Despite glitches, “there are so many backup systems that the airplane remains fundamentally safe,” they wrote.

Boeing’s mostly carbon-fiber-composite 787 also is the company’s most electric aircraft. The Dreamliner uses electric power from the aircraft’s six generators rather than pulling air from the engines to power the main hydraulic system.

Still, Qatar’s Al Baker said he found the generator problems “unacceptable” given that the 787 has been in service for 14 months.

“I don’t think there is any excuse,” he said. “There will be teething problems, yes, minor teething problems.”

Since Boeing’s 787-8 first entered commercial service with All Nippon Airways of Japan, the aircraft has experienced a variety of problems including engine and generator failures, fuel leaks and part defects in the 787’s tail.

About four months after ANA’s first 787 began carrying paying passengers, Boeing had to inspect Dreamliners for incorrectly installed parts in the jet’s tail section. The issue wasn’t considered to be a short-term safety risk.

In July, ANA halted flights on some 787s to inspect for corrosion of the aircraft’s Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 engines.

Dreamliners powered by General Electric’s GEnx engines also have had problems. Debris shot out of a 787’s GE engine, sparking a fire at Charleston International Airport in South Carolina. After other 787s equipped with GE engines had trouble, the Federal Aviation Administration instructed operators of 787s to inspect the GE engines frequently.

Despite the squawks, airlines like ANA and United have expressed confidence in the 787. ANA has touted the 787’s performance and gave Boeing an additional order for 11 of the larger 787-9s. And even after its second 787 was grounded for electrical trouble, United deemed the issues a “nuisance” and not significant.

Boeing’s McNerney said the company regretted that the 787’s issues were impacting customers.

“But … we’re working through it,” he said.

Boeing had received 844 orders for its 787 Dreamliner through the end of November.

Bloomberg News contributed to this report.

Michelle Dunlop: 425-339-3454; mdunlop@heraldnet.com.