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FAA to review of Boeing 787, but calls plane safe

Sunday - 1/13/2013, 3:22pm  ET

FILE - In this Jan. 27, 2012, file photo, Boeing's newest aircraft, the Boeing 787, sits on the tarmac at Huntsville International Airport after a 3600-mile flight from Dublin, in Huntsville, Ala. Boeing executives insisted Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2013, that its 787 Dreamliner is safe, and investors rallied behind the company. But federal investigators are probing a Monday, Jan 7, 2013 fire aboard an empty 787 in Boston, the latest glitch for a high-profile jet that has a lot riding on it, both for Boeing and its airline customers. (AP Photo/The Huntsville Times, Eric Schultz, File)

JOAN LOWY
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The government stepped in Friday to assure the public that Boeing's new 787 "Dreamliner" is safe to fly, even as it launched a comprehensive review to find out what caused a fire, a fuel leak and other worrisome incidents this week.

Despite the incidents, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood declared, "I believe this plane is safe, and I would have absolutely no reservations about boarding one of these planes and taking a flight." Administrator Michael Huerta of the Federal Aviation Administration said his agency has seen no data suggesting the plane isn't safe but wanted the review to find out why safety-related incidents were occurring.

The 787 is the aircraft maker's newest and most technologically advanced airliner, and the company is counting heavily on its success. It relies more than any other modern airliner on electrical signals to help power nearly everything the plane does. It's also the first Boeing plane to use rechargeable lithium ion batteries, which charge faster and can be molded to space-saving shapes compared to other airplane batteries. The plane is made with lightweight composite materials instead of aluminum.

A fire ignited Monday in the battery pack of an auxiliary power unit of a Japan Airlines 787 empty of passengers as the plane sat on the tarmac at Boston's Logan International Airport. It took firefighters 40 minutes to put out the blaze. Also this week, a fuel leak delayed a flight from Boston to Tokyo of another Japan Airlines 787.

On Friday, Japan's All Nippon Airways reported two new cases of problems with the aircraft. ANA spokeswoman Ayumi Kunimatsu said a very small amount of oil was discovered leaking from an engine of a 787 flight from southern Japan's Miyazaki airport to Tokyo.

The jet returned to Miyazaki, and after checks found no safety risk it flew to Tokyo. ANA said that on another flight, to Matsuyama on the island of Shikoku, glass in a cockpit window cracked, and the aircraft was grounded for repairs. ANA said it has no specific plan for inspections and will continue regular operations, though it said it would comply with instructions from the FAA and other authorities.

The FAA review announced Friday, which will be conducted jointly with Boeing, will include the design, manufacture and assembly of the 787 with an emphasis on the plane's electrical power and distribution systems. The review will also examine how the plane's electrical and mechanical systems interact with each other.

There is no obvious trend or similarity to the problems, which suggests they are more likely the result of quality control than a design flaw, aviation safety experts said.

"These appear to be isolated incidents," said John Goglia, a former National Transportation Safety Board member. However, the battery fire remains a special concern because "they overheat or burn with such intensity, at such high temperatures, they can cause damage to the surrounding aircraft structure," he said.

Boeing has insisted that the 787's problems are no worse than 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," said Ray Conner, the president and CEO of Boeing's commercial aircraft division, who joined Huerta and LaHood at a Washington news conference.

Passenger Adam Welch in Seattle agreed. He had picked an All Nippon Airways flight to Korea specifically because it would be on the 787.

"I'm expecting it to be more comfortable. I'm very interested in experiencing the 787," said Welch. "I've been listening to the stories this morning and I was just hoping they didn't ground the plane I was supposed to fly on."

Some of Boeing's airline customers joined the chorus affirming support for the plane. United Airlines, the only U.S. carrier whose fleet includes the 787, said it has confidence in the airliner and will continue to operate its six 787s as scheduled. Air India said it planned no changes. Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker called the troubles "minor setbacks." LOT, the Polish airline, said that it has conducted a series of reviews of all systems in both its Boeing 787s. "All the tests were completed positively -- the systems are efficient and work well," the airline said.

The FAA's decision to conduct a comprehensive review of the 787 is fairly remarkable but was necessary to reassure the public, airline analysts said.

"Most likely, you're looking a manufacturing issue that will change as they learn to build the aircraft, but there's also the possibility that some systems might need tweaking," said Richard Aboulafia of the Teal Group in Fairfax, Va. "Either way, we're not looking at anything that undermines the aircraft's long-term prospects, just something that creates a large number of upfront headaches for Boeing and its customers."

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