January 12, 2013 in Nation/World

787 getting federal review

Officials insist Boeing’s Dreamliner is safe
Scott Mayerowitz Associated Press
 

NEW YORK – Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner had a nightmare of a week, capped off Friday by the Federal Aviation Administration’s decision to review everything about the new airplane, including its entire design and manufacturing process.

Government officials were quick to say that the jet is safe – nearly 50 of them are in the skies. However, a fire Monday and other technical problems stirred serious concerns.

None of the eight airlines using the plane plans to stop flying it during the government’s inquiry, and passengers flying the 787 don’t appear to be worried about their safety. But the extensive review raised a host of questions:

Q. Why is the FAA reviewing the 787?

A. The battery pack on a Japan Airlines 787 ignited Monday shortly after the flight landed at Boston’s Logan International Airport. Passengers had already left the plane, but it took firefighters 40 minutes to put out the blaze. There were separate issues on other planes this week – fuel and oil leaks, a cracked cockpit window and a computer glitch that erroneously indicated a brake problem.

Also, Boeing had earlier problems with the aircraft’s electronics, both during test flights and after customers started flying the plane.

Q. Should the flying public be worried?

A. Safety regulators say no, even though they’re concerned about the recent incidents.

“I would have absolutely no reservations about boarding one of these planes and taking a flight,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Friday.

Q. How big of a decision is the FAA review?

A. Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with the Teal Group, called it “pretty remarkable.”

“There does appear to be a systematic problem either with the manufacturing process or with some of the technologies,” he said. “This is needed to reassure the public.”

Q. How long will the review take?

A. FAA Administrator Michael Huerta didn’t put a time frame on the investigation, but said it was “a very high priority.”

Q. If major changes are required, will the FAA ground the planes that are already flying?

A. Theoretically, the FAA could ground the 50 787s that are in service, but no one has suggested it is considering such a drastic move. Right now, the cause of Monday’s battery fire is unknown, so there’s no way to know what a potential fix – if indeed a fix is needed – might involve.

Q. What’s the big deal about the 787?

A. Boeing hopes the plane will revolutionize air travel. Half of the 787 is made from carbon-fiber composites, which are lighter and stronger than the aluminum used in traditional planes. That means the jet burns less fuel, a big selling point because fuel is an airline’s biggest expense.

The extra strength allows for larger windows and a more comfortable cabin pressure. Composites don’t rust like aluminum, so the humidity in the cabin can be up to 16 percent, double that of a typical aircraft. That means fewer dry throats and stuffy noses.

Q. What else is different about the plane?

A. More than any other modern airliner, the 787 relies on electrical signals to help power nearly everything. It’s the first Boeing plane to use rechargeable lithium-ion batteries to start its auxiliary power unit, which acts as a generator to provide power on the ground or if the main engines quit. The batteries – each about twice the size of a car battery – allowed Boeing to get rid of a heavier system common on other planes that uses hot air from the outside to start the APU.

Q. Do the lithium-ion batteries pose an added danger?

A. Lithium-ion batteries are potentially more susceptible to fire because, unlike other aircraft batteries, the liquid inside them is flammable. The potential for fire increases if the battery is depleted too much or overcharged. Boeing has built in special circuitry and other safeguards designed to prevent that situation.

Q. Does any other plane use composites?

A. Composites are used in smaller amounts on most modern planes. Rival plane maker Airbus is designing its own lightweight composite jet, the A350, but that jet is still several years away from flying.

Q. Didn’t it take Boeing a long time to get the 787 airborne?

A. Boeing applied to the FAA to make the 787 in 2003. The first plane flew in December 2009, and six test planes ran up some 4,645 flight hours. The first paying passengers took flight in October 2011, more than three years behind schedule.

Q. Why the delays?

A. Parts for the jet are made by 52 suppliers scattered around the globe. And, in a first for Boeing, large sections of the jet are built by these outside vendors and then joined together. That process, aimed at saving money, wasn’t as smooth as Boeing had hoped. Parts weren’t delivered on time, and the quality of some suppliers’ products was poor.

Q. How much does the plane cost?

A. The 787-800 has a list price of $206.8 million, but airlines often negotiate discounts.

Q. How many passengers can fit on the plane?

A. It is designed to carry 210 to 250 passengers. Configurations vary depending on how many business-class seats and how much coach legroom each airline wants to provide.

Q. How many 787s are there?

A. Boeing has delivered 50 planes so far. Another 798 are on order. The company is ramping up production to build 10 787s per month in Washington state and South Carolina by the end of the year.

Q. Is it normal for a new plane to have problems?

A. Any complicated piece of machinery has glitches at first. The Airbus A380, for instance, had an engine explode midflight in late 2010. However, the unique nature of the 787’s construction – and the increased media spotlight on this plane – have regulators doing a more thorough review.

Boeing insists that the 787’s problems are no worse than what it experienced when its 777 was new in the mid-1990s. That plane is now one of its top-sellers and is well-liked by airlines.

“Every new commercial aircraft has issues as it enters service,” Ray Conner, president and CEO of Boeing’s commercial aircraft division, said Friday at the FAA news conference.

Q. What airlines fly the 787?

A. Japan’s All Nippon Airways is the largest operator of the plane. United is the first U.S. airline customer, with six. Air India, Ethiopian Airlines, Japan Airlines, LAN Airlines, LOT Polish Airlines and Qatar Airways also fly the plane.

Q. What’s at stake for Boeing?

A. Any more production delays could further upset the airlines that are eager to start flying the plane and cost Boeing millions of dollars in contractual penalties. If major changes are needed, the plane might weigh more, cutting its fuel efficiency. Orders could shift to the Airbus A350.

Q: What are passengers saying?

A: Passengers flying the 787 don’t appear to be worried about safety, saying they expect a new plane to have some issues.

In Seattle, Adam Welch was excited for his first flight on a Dreamliner. He heard the news about the FAA’s review and “was just hoping they didn’t ground the plane I was supposed to fly on.” As for the 787’s problems, he said the plane has been experiencing “growing pains.”

Donald Crump, from Auburn, N.H., was at Boston’s Logan International Airport on Friday, checking in for his third 787 flight. He called the plane’s problems “minor” and said the FAA review was “the politically correct thing to do.” Crump likes the 787 because the well-lit and climate-controlled cabin provides passengers “a much more pleasing environment to travel in.”

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