Nightmare rolls on for Dreamliner

CRAIG PLATT, WITH REUTERS
Last updated 16:12 10/01/2013

Fuel leak forces Boeing 787 Dreamliner to abort takeoff from Boston's Logan International Airport.

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Boeing's 787 Dreamliner jet suffered a third mishap in as many days on Wednesday, heightening safety concerns after a string of setbacks for the new aircraft.

Japan's All Nippon Airways said it was forced to cancel a 787 Dreamliner flight scheduled to from fly from Yamaguchi prefecture in western Japan to Tokyo due to brake problems.

That followed a fuel leak on Tuesday that forced a 787 operated by Japan Airlines to cancel take-off at Boston's Logan International Airport, a day after an electrical fire on another 787 after a JAL flight to Boston from Tokyo.

Asian customers rallied behind the US planemaker, however, saying such teething troubles were not uncommon on new planes and confirming they had no plans to scale back or cancel orders for the aircraft, which has a list price of $US207 million ($197 million).

Japan is by far the biggest customer for the Dreamliner to date, with JAL and All Nippon Airways (ANA) operating a total of 24 of the 49 new planes delivered by the end of December. The aircraft entered commercial service in November 2011, more than three years behind schedule after a series of production delays. Boeing has sold 848 of the planes.

JAL spokesman Kazunori Kidosaki said the carrier, which operates seven Dreamliners, had no plans to change orders it has placed for another 38 aircraft. ANA, which has 17 Dreamliners flying its colours, will also stick with its orders for another 49, spokesman Etsuya Uchiyama said.

State-owned Air India, which on Monday took delivery of the sixth of the 27 Dreamliners it has ordered, said precautionary measures were already in place and its planes were flying smoothly. "It's a new plane, and some minor glitches do happen. It's not a cause of concern," said spokesman G. Prasada Rao.

There was no immediate suggestion that the 787 Dreamliner, the world's first passenger jet built mainly from carbon-plastic lightweight materials to save fuel, was likely to be grounded as investigators looked into the fire incident.

Air China, which sees the 787 as a way to expand its international routes, and Hainan Airlines also said they were keeping their orders for 15 and 10 of the planes.

"New aeroplanes more or less will need adjustments, and currently we have no plans to swap or cancel orders," said an executive at future 787 operator Hainan Airlines, who was not authorised to talk to the media and did not want to be named.

Qatar Airways chief executive Akbar Al Baker, who has previously criticised technical problems or delays with Boeing or Airbus jets, said there were no technical problems with the five 787s currently in use by the Gulf carrier.

"It doesn't mean we are going to cancel our orders. It's a revolutionary aeroplane," he said.

Other carriers already flying the Dreamliner are Ethiopian Airlines, LAN Airlines, LOT Polish Airlines and United Airlines.

Chief engineer defends plane

Boeing rolled out the Dreamliner's chief engineer to try to quell concerns about the new jet following the mishaps.

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At a news conference on Wednesday, the engineer, Mike Sinnett, defended the 787, the world's first plastic plane, and said its problem rates are at about the same level as Boeing's successful 777 jet.

Relatively few technical problems prevent 787s from leaving a gate within 15 minutes of scheduled departure time, he said. "We're in the high 90 percents," he said. "We're right where the 777 program was" at this stage.

The prevalence of more significant issues, such as a battery fire, is in the same order of magnitude as previous programs, he added. "There's no metrics that are screaming at me that we've got a problem."

Sinnett explained in detail how the lithium ion battery system that burned on Monday was designed by his team to be safe and prevent smoke getting into the cabin in the event of a fire during a flight. "I am 100 percent convinced that the airplane is safe to fly," he said.

Asked why smoke entered the cabin on Monday, Sinnett said the plane lacked cabin pressure to expel smoke because it was on the ground. In that scenario, "We expect that there would be sufficient time to evacuate the plane safely," Sinnett said.

40 Gallon Spill

The fuel leak on Tuesday was noticed at about noon after the plane had left the gate in preparation for take-off to Tokyo. About 40 gallons spilled, and the jet was towed back to the gate, where passengers disembarked, said Richard Walsh, a spokesman for the transportation authority.

The plane departed about four hours behind schedule and was due to arrive in Tokyo on Wednesday evening.

No passengers or crew were injured in either incident, although firefighters were called out on both occasions.

Boeing shares fell nearly 2.7 per cent on Tuesday, following a 2 per cent drop on Monday – wiping about $US2.8 billion off its market value, or more than a dozen Dreamliners at list price.

While many Wall Street analysts rate Boeing stock a "buy" or "outperform" – the manufacturer has delivered jets faster than the market predicted – some noted the potential for the combination of a fire and a fuel leak to affect public perception of Boeing and the new aircraft.

People working at OG Travel and Eurex, travel agents in Tokyo, said they had not seen any impact on reservations on flights using the 787 aircraft. "I've not heard of any cancellations following these incidents," Eurex staffer Yasuhiro Hirashiki said.

Carter Leake, an analyst at BB&T Capital Markets in Virginia, downgraded Boeing shares, noting that fires are potentially lethal and electrical issues are tough to solve. But he and others stopped short of calling it a "game-changer" for the Seattle-based manufacturer.

"We're getting to a tipping point where they go from needing to rectify problems to doing major damage control to the image of the company and the plane," said Richard Aboulafia, a defence and aerospace analyst with Teal Group, a consulting company based in Fairfax, Virginia.

"While they delivered a large and unexpected number of 787s last year, it's possible that they should have instead focused on identifying glitches and flaws, rather than pushing ahead with volume production," he said.

Battery fire

Monday's fire occurred on a 787 plane that had just arrived from Tokyo and whose 183 passengers and crew had disembarked.

The National Transportation Safety Board said on Tuesday a battery in the auxiliary power unit aboard the plane jet had suffered "severe fire damage" and that surrounding damage was limited to components and structures within about 20 inches. It said the power unit was operating when the fire was discovered.

Shares in GS Yuasa Corporation, the Japanese company that makes the Dreamliner batteries, fell about 5 per cent in Tokyo on Wednesday after dropping 4 per cent a day earlier.

Boeing said it was cooperating with the investigations, but it would be premature to go into detail.

"However, nothing we've seen in this case indicates a relationship to any previous 787 power system events, which involved power panel faults elsewhere in the aft electrical equipment bay (where the fire occurred)," the company said.

The Wall Street Journal, citing a source, reported that United Airlines found improperly installed wiring in 787 electrical components associated with the auxiliary power unit, the same electrical system that caused Monday's fire.

United spokeswoman Christen David said the carrier inspected its 787s after the Boston fire, but she declined to discuss the findings, or to confirm the Journal report.

The Federal Aviation Administration last month ordered all 787s to be inspected after fuel leaks were found on two aircraft, due, it said, to incorrectly assembled fuel-line couplings that could result in power loss or an engine fire.

Mechanical problems are not uncommon when new planes enter service and they often disrupt airline schedules, experts said.

"I think we're dealing here with a situation where this aircraft is over-scrutinised for a number of reasons, including the birth difficulties," said Michel Merluzeau, managing partner at defence and aerospace consulting company G2 Solutions.

"Don't get me wrong. A battery fire is a very, very serious event. Especially a lithium-ion battery," he said. "And we don't know what the problem is. But the 787s is still a very safe aircraft to fly."

Dreamliner's nightmares

2012

July - A General Electric engine on a 787 in North Charleston, SC, breaks during a preflight test. The National Transportation Safety Board rules it a "contained" failure, meaning the broken pieces did not exit through the engine wall. GE orders inspections of the engines. The Federal Aviation Administration stops short of grounding planes for inspections.

December 4 - A United Airlines 787 with 184 people aboard is forced to make an emergency landing in New Orleans after experiencing electrical problems.

December 5 - US regulators say there is a manufacturing fault in 787 fuel lines and advises operators to make extra inspections to guard against engine failures.

December 13 - Qatar Airways grounds one of its three 787s after finding the same electrical problem that affected the Dec. 4 United flight.

December 17 - United confirms finding an electrical problem in a second plane in its 787 fleet.

2013

January 7 - A parked 787 operated by Japan Airlines catches fire at Boston Logan International Airport after a battery in an auxiliary power system explodes.

January 8 - A second 787 operated by Japan Airlines leaks fuel at Boston Logan, forcing it to cancel its takeoff and return to the gate. The plane departs later.

Following a safety inspection, United finds a wiring problem in the same electrical system that caused the January 7 fire in Boston, the Wall Street Journal reports.

January 9 - Japan's All Nippon Airways cancels a 787 flight scheduled to make a domestic trip within Japan due to brake problems.

 

- Reuters

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