FAA to review Boeing 787, but calls plane safe


by GLENN FARLEY / KING 5 News Aviation Specialist

Bio | Email | Follow: @GlennFarley


Posted on January 11, 2013 at 7:06 AM

Updated Friday, Jan 11 at 7:31 PM

SEATTLE -– Boeing says its 787 Dreamliner is no more prone to early “teething” problems than any other newly introduced jet, and that the new plane's problems are on par with those experienced during the introduction of its last all new jetliner, the popular and reliable 777 back in the mid 1990s.
In December, four planes were found with a glitch that caused the pilot to receive a warning in the cockpit indicating a generator problem. In one case, the warning prompted the pilot of a United Airlines 787 to divert to a nearby airport out of what the airline called an “abundance of caution.”

That problem is now being traced to a batch of defective circuit boards inside one of the power panels built by a second-tier supplier -- a company that builds parts for another firm that in turn supplies bigger assemblies directly to Boeing.

The FAA has so far only issued one airworthiness directive that focused solely on the 787, addressing a manufacturing issue with fuel line connections to the engines. The FAA says that problem is now fixed on all operating 787s.  

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But on Monday, concerns grew after Japan Air Lines Flight 8 from Tokyo to Boston caught fire 15 minutes after the last passengers and crews deplaned. That fire involved one of two lithium ion batteries on the plane, used to start the auxiliary power unit if no other power is available.
The 787 is not the only airplane to use lithium ion batteries, but their use as part of the aircraft’s electrical system is new for commercial airplanes.

Lithium ion batteries have been subject to restrictions when shipped as cargo. In 2010, a shipment of large lithium ion batteries caught fire aboard a UPS 747 flight, causing the plane to crash near Dubai killing both pilots on board.

Other lithium ion batteries have caught fire in flight. The FAA had to grant special permission for Boeing to use the batteries as part of the airplane’s system, and Boeing says the 787 runs the 32-volt battery well below its capacity, and the company points out that there are multiple backups to prevent overcharging, which is considered the cause of most lithium ion battery explosions.

But lithium ion batteries -- widely used in cell phones, laptop computers, cordless power tools  and in electric cars -- can provide the same benefits in airplanes that they do for consumers. They provide lots of power in a small package, hold a charge and don’t have the drawbacks of some older battery technologies including nickel cadmium.

“We want to see the entire picture, and don’t want to simply focus on individual events,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta at a Washington, D.C., news conference Friday morning announcing a top-to-bottom review of how the 787 is designed, manufactured and tested.  But he made one thing clear: “We are going to put an emphasis on the electrical systems of the airplane.” 

The 787 is widely considered the most tested jet in the world. Boeing conducted flight tests using six jets.  It also conducted punishing tests of its electrical system for years on the ground inside a Seattle testing lab, where every mile of wire, every actuator, and every computer part continuously operated; the plane was “flown” virtually using both computers and pilots running the controls.

What the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board do not yet have is the root cause of the battery fire.  Logan airport’s fire chief said the battery exploded after the flames were put out, and the NTSB describes damage to the battery as extensive, while damage to the surrounding area of the rear EE or electrical bay appeared modest and confined largely to smoke damage as seen in a photo released by the NTSB.

For Boeing, the incidents could create a perception problem among the flying public that could eventually work its way up to the executive suite at airlines considering purchasing the jet.  Despite production delays, most airline customers are still hanging in there to get the 20-percent fuel savings and lower maintenance costs Boeing promises. Boeing and the airlines have promoted the plane as a quieter and more comfortable flight experience for passengers.

At Friday's news conference, both the FAA’s Huerta and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said the plane is safe.

“We welcome any opportunity to further assure people outside the industry about the integrity of the airplane and the process that brings them to life,” said Ray Conner, the chief of Boeing’s commercial airplane business. 

Boeing statement released to the media on Jan. 11:

Boeing is confident in the design and performance of the 787. It is a safe and efficient airplane that brings tremendous value to our customers and an improved flying experience to their passengers.

The airplane has logged 50,000 hours of flight and there are more than 150 flights occurring daily. Its in-service performance is on par with the industry's best-ever introduction into service – the Boeing 777. Like the 777, at 15 months of service, we are seeing the 787's fleet wide dispatch reliability well above 90 percent.

More than a year ago, the 787 completed the most robust and rigorous certification process in the history of the FAA. We remain fully confident in the airplane's design and production system.

Regular reviews of program and technical progress are an important part of the validation and oversight process that has created today's safe and efficient air transportation system. While the 787's reliability is on par with the best in class, we have experienced in-service issues in recent months and we are never satisfied while there is room for improvement. For that reason, today we jointly announced with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) the start of a review of the 787's recent issues and critical systems.

We welcome the opportunity to conduct this joint review. Our standard practice calls on us to apply rigorous and ongoing validation of our tools, processes and systems so that we can always be ensured that our products bring the highest levels of safety and reliability to our customers.

Just as we are confident in the airplane, we are equally confident in the regulatory process that has been applied to the 787 since its design inception. With this airplane, the FAA conducted its most robust certification process ever. We expect that this review will complement that effort.