FAA to review Boeing 787 but calls plane safe

The Federal Aviation Administration will conduct a comprehensive review of the Boeing Co.’s 787 in light of recent mechanical problems with the Dreamliner, officials announced Friday in Washington, D.C.

“We are concerned about recent events concerning Boeing’s 787,” said Ray LaHood, secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

A fire broke out Monday on a 787 that was parked at a gate at the Boston airport and operated by Japan Airlines. The fire was traced to a battery, in the belly of the fuselage, which is used to start the Dreamliner’s auxiliary power unit. There also were several incidents late last year involving the 787 electrical system.

The review will include a look at the design, manufacture and assembly of the 787 in Everett and North Charleston, S.C. FAA Administrator Michael Huerta noted that there would be an emphasis on the electrical systems, including the 787’s batteries and power distribution panels.

Huerta and LaHood were joined at a press conference Friday by Ray Conner, president of Boeing Commercial Airplanes. All three expressed confidence in the safety of the 787.

“We have complete confidence in the 787 and so do many of our customers,” said Conner, noting that more than 150 Dreamliner flights occur daily.

Boeing officials said that new airplanes commonly experience glitches when first entering commercial service. But “rest assured that we won’t ever be satisfied until the airplane is performing perfectly,” Randy Tinseth, vice president of marketing for commercial airplanes, wrote on his blog Friday afternoon.

The FAA is not grounding the fleet of 787s and has issued no directive to airlines to take precautions flying the 787 or conduct additional inspections.

“Nothing we have seen would indicate this airplane is not safe,” Huerta said.

But the magnitude of a week’s worth of bad Dreamliner news — the Boston fire, a fuel leak and other glitches that interrupted flights and made headlines — was underscored later Friday when Boeing CEO Jim McNerney issued a statement from company headquarters in Chicago.

“Boeing shares the same commitment to air travel safety that Transportation Secretary LaHood and FAA Administrator Huerta spoke of this morning in Washington, D.C.,” McNerney said. “We also stand 100 percent behind the integrity of the 787 and the rigorous process that led to its successful certification and entry into service.”

The company’s stock price has been somewhat volatile this week. Boeing shares were down 2.5 percent Friday, closing at $75.16.

Huerta gave no time frame for completing the review. But the agency is giving the review its “highest level of priority.”

“Based on what we learn, we will take whatever action is necessary,” he said.

Boeing has delivered 50 787s, including six to United Airlines, the only U.S.-based carrier that currently operates a Dreamliner. On Twitter, United said it has “confidence that Boeing, with FAA support, will resolve these early operational issues.”

The National Transportation and Safety Board, the separate federal agency which investigates transportation accidents and recommends regulatory action, also is looking into Monday’s incident with the Japan Airlines 787.

A comprehensive review by the FAA of commercial aircraft is a “rare” occurrence, writes Scott Hamilton, an analyst with Issaquah-based Leeham Co.. In a blog post Friday, he recalled that a similar review of the McDonnell-Douglas DC-10 took place in 1979.

Despite the FAA’s review, Hamilton said, he would still fly on the 787.

Analyst Richard Aboulafia, with the Teal Group, seconded that note of confidence in the safety of the 787 in an interview Friday. Aboulafia said the real problem with flying a 787 right now is reliability, particularly for long-haul flights when airlines might not have a backup aircraft available.

As for Boeing’s reputation, “it takes a hit” in the short term, Aboulafia said. But presuming Boeing gets everything back on track — Aboulafia is assuming so — these “unusual” number of glitches and FAA review “will be all be forgotten in a few years,” he said.

Aboulafia thought the review could slow 787 production temporarily as the company works to boost production from five to 10 jets monthly. However, Carter Leake, an analyst who follows the industry for BB&T Capital Markets, said Boeing is unlikely to slow down production, even if it ends up having to change the way part of the plane is built.

Boeing’s Conner dismissed the notion that the 787’s troubles are related to recent production-rate increases. In December, the FAA conducted an audit with Boeing of airplanes built in Everett and in South Carolina, Conner said. The agency logged 200,000 hours certifying the 787 before it could begin carrying paying passengers.

Boeing’s Dreamliner conserves fuel by using five times more electricity than similar jets and by saving weight with a fuselage and wings made from composite materials, not aluminum. Some FAA regulations didn’t cover the new technologies, so the plane was certified with multiple “special conditions.”

On Friday, FAA chief Huerta said that some of the recent issues with the 787 relate to the plane’s new technology.

“This is an extremely important airplane, a technologically advanced airplane,” Huerta said.

The 787’s use of lithium-ion batteries, for one thing, sets it apart from other models. Boeing got regulatory permission to use the batteries in the jet in 2007, three years after passenger planes were barred from carrying non-rechargeable battery types as cargo.

Only those batteries can provide a high-energy start and be recharged quickly to meet the jet’s needs, Mike Sinnett, the chief engineer for the Dreamliner, said this week. The battery has “robust protection” against charging and discharging too quickly, since both are dangerous, he said.

In an email sent Friday to Boeing employees, Conner acknowledged the 787 has faced challenges since entering commercial service in late 2011. But, he said, “we have a pioneering spirit built on a culture of continuous improvement, which is why this joint review will be a beneficial process for both Boeing and the FAA.”

The Associated Press and Bloomberg News contributed to this report.

Herald reporter Michelle Dunlop: 425-339-3454 or mdunlop@heraldnet.com.

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