By Alan Levin Bloomberg News
WASHINGTON — U.S. regulators and Boeing didn’t exercise enough quality control over subcontractors during the 787 Dreamliner’s development, according to a review prompted by battery failures that led to the longest grounding of a commercial airplane since the 1950s.
The review found that the Dreamliner is safe, meets design standards and is about as reliable as other Boeing jetliners were after being introduced. The Federal Aviation Administration issued seven recommendations, four for Boeing and three for itself, to improve the way new-aircraft design and manufacturing is overseen.
“The review team identified some problems with the manufacturing process and the way we oversee it, and we are moving quickly to address those problems,” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in a statement.
The FAA’s review of the 787’s certification and manufacturing, announced in January 2013, is separate from an ongoing probe by the National Transportation Safety Board into what caused the battery incidents.
“We welcomed the opportunity presented by this joint review,” Ray Conner, Boeing commercial airplanes president and chief executive officer, said in a statement. “The findings validate our confidence in both the design of the airplane and the disciplined process used to identify and correct in-service issues as they arise.”
The two cases in which 787 batteries overheated and emitted fumes in the U.S. and Japan were another blemish on a more-efficient plane that was beset with manufacturing delays and production issues. Those pushed its introduction more than three years behind schedule.
The 787 fell behind in part because Boeing turned over more authority to suppliers than during development of previous models. The arrangement, intended to cut costs and reduce Boeing risk, caused a series of delays starting in October 2007.
The first battery incident occurred Jan. 7, 2013, in Boston aboard a Japan Airlines plane that had arrived from Tokyo. It emitted fumes and gave off high heat, as if it was on fire, according to the NTSB.
While no one was hurt and the plane didn’t suffer significant damage, the NTSB opened an investigation because the aircraft was new and had just recently entered service.
Two days later, an All Nippon Airways 787 made an emergency landing at Takamatsu Airport in southern Japan after another lithium-ion battery overheated and fumes entered the cabin.
Both Japanese carriers halted flight of 787s, and the FAA followed on Jan. 17 with its order grounding the plane, the first such action in 34 years. At the time, there were 49 Dreamliners in service.
One hundreds days after the grounding, on April 19, the FAA announced it had approved a set of more-rigorous battery standards and allowed the plane to resume commercial operations.
The FAA directive required multiple additional protections for the battery system. Each of the individual eight cells was to be placed in a protective sleeve. The cells were enclosed in a steel case to prevent heat and fire from damaging a plane. A vent was devised so that any fumes would go outside the plane and not enter the cabin.
GS Yuasa Corp., based in Kyoto, Japan, makes the batteries, which are part of an electrical system built by France’s Thales. United Technologies Corp.’s Aerospace Systems unit supplies the system, which uses 1.45 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 400 homes.
In its statement Wednesday, Boeing said it has instituted changes in the new-airplane development process, particularly with regard to outsourcing.
“The review team outlined four recommended improvements for Boeing,” the company said. “Three of the recommendations focus on improving the flow of information, standards and expectations between the company and its suppliers. Boeing has already taken significant steps to implement these recommendations.
“The fourth recommendation encourages Boeing to continue implementing and maturing the gated processes for development programs,” Boeing said.
“‘Gated process’ refers to the disciplined criteria followed as a new airplane model is developed. This ensures a sufficient level of maturity is gained before a program proceeds to key milestones such as design completion, production start and entry into service,” the company said.
Meanwhile, the review recommended that the FAA revise how it oversees new-airplane development programs “to recognize new aircraft manufacturing business models” and implement better production-approval procedures “to more fully address complex, large-scale manufacturers with extended supply chains.”
Boeing had delivered 122 Dreamliners through last month, according to the company’s website, most from the big factory in Everett but also from North Charleston, S.C. Airlines have ordered 1,031 Dreamliners in all.
While the manufacturer boosted monthly production of the 787 to 10 from seven at the end of 2013, it has struggled to match deliveries with that schedule. The company had handed over only eight planes to airlines this year through February.
Boeing is also contending with the potential for hairline cracks in wings on about 40 Dreamliners after supplier Mitsubishi Heavy Industries changed a manufacturing process, the company announced March 8. None of those 40 planes had been delivered to airlines.
After the 2013 battery incidents and grounding, Boeing shares fell, from a close of $77.69 Jan. 4 to $73.65 Jan. 29, a 5.2 percent drop. As the investigation progressed and a fix was instituted, the shares climbed.
Shares have risen about 30 percent since the FAA announced it approved Boeing’s fix for the 787, last April 19.
Dreamliners are the first commercial jets built chiefly of spun composite fibers instead of the traditional aluminum. The composite wing is distinctive for its 190-foot span and raked tips and, according to Boeing’s website, is about 20 percent lighter because of the new materials.
Herald staff contributed.