By Alan Levin, Susanna Ray and Chris Cooper Bloomberg News
Qatar Airways, one of the biggest customers for the Boeing Co.’s Dreamliner, said heightened scrutiny of the model after a plane caught fire at the Boston airport won’t dampen the carrier’s purchase plans.
“We will have these problems,” Qatar Chief Executive Officer Akbar al Baker told reporters in Doha on Wednesday. Al Baker has been known to publicly slam plane manufacturers, including Boeing, for performances deemed sub-par. “We’ve had no other technical issues. There will be small teething problems.”
This is a crucial year for the 787 as Chicago-based Boeing increases deliveries and production, trying to get out from under the weight of seven delays to the jet’s introduction that spanned more than three years. Qatar still has about 25 unfilled orders for the 787, and al Baker has said he wants to order a larger version of the plane if Boeing offers it.
The fire, spotted Monday on a Japan Airlines plane after passengers disembarked from a flight that began in Tokyo, and a fuel leak that delayed another Dreamliner at the same airport, on Tuesday, are the latest image setbacks to plague the world’s first jet with a fuselage made chiefly of composite materials. The Dreamliner entered commercial service in late 2011.
Boeing, which stressed its confidence in the new model during a conference call with reporters Wednesday, is set to double production of the 787 this year to help fill remaining orders for about 800. The planemaker has delivered about 50 of the jets to eight customers: All Nippon Airways Co., Japan Airlines, Air India Ltd., Ethiopian Airlines, Chile’s LAN Airlines, LOT Polish Airlines SA, United Continental Holdings Inc. and Qatar Airways.
Jets flown by Air India, which received its sixth Dreamliner on Jan. 7, are “operating smoothly,” G. Prasada Rao, a spokesman for the carrier, said in New Delhi. Boeing has agreed to modify the electrical system on one of the planes by March after providing an “interim solution” to a fault detected in September, he said.
All new jet models have introductory pains for the first year or two, said Mike Sinnett, chief 787 project engineer, during the conference call. The 787’s “squawks” haven’t been any worse than those of the 777 — one of Boeing’s most popular models — and have been better than “other widebodies” available, Sinnett said, without naming those.
“I am 100 percent convinced the airplane is safe to fly,” Sinnett said. “I fly on it myself all the time.”
But media attention has been intense this week, with lesser, unrelated incidents making headlines after the fire:
•A day after the Boston fire, an open fuel valve caused kerosene to leak from another Japan Airlines Dreamliner at the same airport, delaying takeoff until mechanics could close it, said Seiji Takaramoto, a spokesman at Japan Airlines. About 40 gallons of fuel spilled on the ground at Logan International Airport, said Matthew Brelis, a spokesman for airport operator Massport.
Japan Airlines, with a fleet of seven 787s, planned to check why the fuel valve wasn’t closed after the plane arrived back in Tokyo, Takaramoto said. The carrier completed checks on batteries after the 787 fire in Boston and no problems were found on the other six aircraft, he said.
•All Nippon Airways, the first and biggest operator of 787s, canceled a domestic Dreamliner flight Wednesday in Japan because of a problem with the computer controlling the brake system, Megumi Tezuka, a spokeswoman at the airline, said by telephone from Tokyo. The airline had several computer problems with the 787 after receiving the first plane in September 2011, which led to the software system being updated last year, she said.
“The 787 is a high-profile plane, so it’s getting more media play than if the same thing was happening on a 737. Mechanical issues happen all the time, but you don’t hear about them,” said Michael Derchin, an analyst at CRT Capital Group in Stamford, Conn.
“Unfortunately the aircraft is known now for its problems, not for the performance it delivers and the enhanced safety features,” said Michel Merluzeau, an analyst with G2 Solutions in Kirkland.
Boeing shares rose 3.6 percent to $76.76, recovering from the stock’s biggest two-day decline in more than seven months.
In the Monday incident, a mechanic noticed smoke as he walked through the jet after passengers had disembarked from their flight from Tokyo. The smoke was traced to a fire from the battery used for the auxiliary power unit, Japan Airlines said in a statement.
ANA found no problems with the batteries on its 787s after checking them following a request from Japan’s transport ministry, ANA’s Tezuka said.
GS Yuasa Corp., which made the lithium ion battery on the 787, is cooperating with the investigation, said Tsutomu Nishijima, a spokesman for the Kyoto, Japan-based company. GS Yuasa wasn’t aware of the reason for the fire, he said.
While the lithium batteries used in the 787 weren’t the only choice, they were the right one, said Sinnett, the 787 engineer.
“Knowing what I know now, I’d make the same choice now,” he said. The batteries were designed to be able to burn and still ensure a safe flight and landing for the plane with any smoke diverted out of the cabin and cockpit while it’s flying, he said.
United Continental inspected all six of its 787s following Monday’s Japan Airlines fire, said Mary Ryan, a spokeswoman. She declined to reveal the results and said Chicago-based United continues to work with Boeing on the 787’s reliability.
An in-flight fire in an avionics bay in 2010 forced the 787 test fleet to be parked for six weeks and added six months to the delay of the plane’s entry into service while engineers rewrote electricity-distribution software. That fire was traced to debris in an electrical panel, which is in the same bay under the cabin as the batteries in question.
Last month, electrical faults forced United and Qatar Airways to ground 787s. The plane is the first commercial airliner made chiefly of composite materials, instead of aluminum, and with an all-electric power system that uses five times as much electricity as other, similar jets.