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Why Boeing's 787, the Dreamliner, is under review

Sunday - 1/13/2013, 11:16am  ET

FILE - In this Nov. 4, 2012 file photo, a Boeing 787 takes off from George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston. Boeing’s Dreamliner has had a rough week, capped off Friday, Jan. 11, 2013 with a decision by the Federal Aviation Administration to review everything from the design to manufacturing of the new airplane. Government officials were quick to say that the plane is safe, however a fire Monday, Jan. 7, and subsequent spate of technical problems raised enough questions to prompt this highly unusual review. (AP Photo/Houston Chronicle, Eric Kayne)

SCOTT MAYEROWITZ
AP Airlines Writer

NEW YORK (AP) -- 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 a subsequent spate of 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 timeframe 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: How important is the 787 to Boeing's future?

A: At the moment, the 787 is a money-loser. Boeing doesn't expect to begin making a profit on the jet until 2015. But it's a prestige airplane, intended to offer more comfort for passengers and much better fuel efficiency for airlines in a state-of-the-art design. And considering that some Boeing models have been built for 40 years (e.g. the 737 and 747), the company still hopes to make money on the 787 over time.

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: Is there anything quirky about this plane?

A: There are no window shades. Boeing replaced them with an electronic tinting feature. Click a button below the window, and it slowly starts to darken. The wings curve up at different degrees during flight. ANA has even outfitted its bathrooms with a window and bidet.

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 of 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. In September 2010, a UPS Boeing 747-400 crashed in Dubai after a large number of the batteries it was carrying as cargo caught fire.

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