787s to get total review; FAA to look for 'root causes' of recent problems
Boeing's 787 Dreamliner, the most scrutinized jet in recent memory, is about to get another major look-over.
After a week of technical glitches including a fire, the Federal Aviation Administration announced Friday a comprehensive review of the new plane program to validate the agency's yearslong certification process that concluded in summer 2011.
The review, which will be conducted with Boeing's cooperation, will cover the design, manufacturing and assembly of the 787, including the work done at the company's Dreamliner complex in North Charleston.
“Through it, we will look for the root causes of recent events and do everything we can to ensure these events don't happen again,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who presided over a morning press conference in Washington.
The review will focus on the technologically advanced jet's extensive electric system, which replaced the hydraulic systems of its predecessors, but will not be limited to any one aspect of the program or any one of the recent glitches, according to just-confirmed FAA Administrator Michael Huerta.
“We want to see the entire picture and we do not want to focus on individual events,” Huerta said.
Boeing makes or assembles the aft- and mid-body sections of every 787, and has performed final assembly and delivery of several planes so far in North Charleston. All but four of the jets delivered to date and all the planes that suffered problems this past week were assembled in Everett, Wash.
Despite his agency's decision to undertake an open-ended look at Boeing's prize jet program, LaHood, Huerta and Boeing Commercial Airplanes CEO Ray Conner all repeatedly emphasized that the 787 is safe to fly.
“Nothing we have seen would indicate that this airplane is not safe,” Huerta said. “If we identify a safety problem, we are going to take appropriate action.”
The 787s in service can continue flying and deliveries are expected to continue throughout the review, however long it lasts.
“I'm not going to speculate on a timetable because we have to see where the data takes us,” Huerta said. “But we are committed to doing this as expeditiously as possible.”
Boeing's stock price, which took a big hit Monday and Tuesday before bouncing back Wednesday and Thursday, took another dive Friday. Shares closed down $1.93 to $75.16, a 2.5 percent drop.
Some aviation analysts saw Friday's development in a more positive light.
Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis with Teal Group in Fairfax, Va., said he doubts that the review will find any “showstoppers.”
“The plane is safe. It's just a question of how much this is going to cost Boeing,” Aboulafia said.
In the long run, it could be good for Boeing, he said, as the hyped but troubled plane is “going to be vindicated by an extremely professional agency.”
“I think everyone just needs this,” he said.
Mary Schiavo, the former inspector general for the U.S. Department of Transportation, said LaHood's presence at the press conference sent a message to his aviation agency to “get your act together.”
“The FAA should've done their job right the first time, and now everybody has to play catch up,” said Schiavo, now an attorney at Motley Rice in Mount Pleasant.
Technical and supply-chain issues delayed the 787's entry into passenger service by more than three years, and the problems have continued even now that 50 of the jets have been delivered.
A local 787 experienced engine failure during pre-delivery taxi test at Charleston International Airport in July, and other planes suffered fuel leaks. Both of those problems led to FAA airworthiness directives last year.
But this past week was extraordinary for the concentration of glitches.
A post-flight electrical fire on a Japan Airlines 787 in Boston raised concerns about the jet's use of lithium-ion batteries and is under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board.
The next day, another JAL 787 leaked 40 gallons of fuel onto the runway. There was a reported brake issue from Japan Wednesday, and Friday morning brought news of another fuel leak and a cracked windscreen, also in Japan.
In his plane's defense Friday, Conner said the 787 passed the “most robust and rigorous certification process in the history of commercial aviation,” including 200,000 hours with the FAA.
Since deliveries began in September 2011, he said those 787s have logged 50,000 hours in the air and carried 1 million passengers, with only a small percentage of those people inconvenienced by the various technical problems.
Conner said any new airplane is bound to experience hiccups in its early years, but that the 787's reliability record to date is “on par with the past successful commercial airplane introductions like the Boeing 777.”
He said Boeing has “complete confidence in the 787, and so do our customers.”
“We are fully committed to resolving any issue that affects the reliability of our airplane,” he said, a sentiment that was echoed in an emailed statement from Boeing CEO Jim McNerney a few hours later.
Schiavo was inspector general for the U.S. Department of Transportation in the mid-1990s when the 777 was certified, and she described the 787's troubles “similar to the birthing pains of the 777.”
“I just remember it pretty clearly that it was kind of the same sort of sentiment, 'What's with this plane?'” Schiavo said.
Conner tamped down questions about whether the 787's international supply chain or its ongoing production ramp-up played a part in the recent problems.
He noted that the FAA just completed an audit of the airplanes assembled in Everett and North Charleston, “and everything has checked out fine.”
He said the production ramp-up, from about two planes per month to five now to 10 per month by the end of this year, has gone “better than expected” and that the planes are coming out of the factories “very clean.”
“I don't think any of these issues have anything to do with the production ramp,” Conner said.
Aboulafia said he has suspicions that Boeing's speed goal is partially to blame.
“I'm leaning more and more to this being the hidden price of ramping up too fast,” he said.
Conner also emphasized that “once the incidents have happened, the airplane has performed exactly as designed.”
“The redundancies that we have put into this machine are phenomenal, and the airplane performed perfectly in that respect,” he said. “Now, we would like to make sure none of those happens again and that's what we're going to try to do here. Root cause, corrective action, that's what we're working on.”
Boeing South Carolina spokeswoman Candy Eslinger declined to comment on the morale at the local complex in light of the recent incidents. or on how the FAA review might affect North Charleston.
“We're continuing with production,” she said. A new part of that this month, Eslinger confirmed, is aft-body work on the 787-9 extended Dreamliner model, with mid-body work to follow later this quarter.
While some Lowcountry residents are taking pride in the fact that none of the recent problem planes underwent final assembly and delivery from North Charleston, Schiavo said, “realistically, it didn't concern any Charleston planes just because there hasn't been that many yet.”
Schiavo said the workers in North Charleston can look forward to visits from FAA personnel from Seattle and other areas of the country, and maybe a more permanent involvement.
“Boeing does 95 percent of their certification,” she said. “By having an increased FAA presence, that might increase the inspection of Boeing by outsiders from maybe 5 percent to maybe 10 or 15 percent.”
Schiavo and Aboulafia laid out the likely range of FAA findings.
“The best-case scenario is they find there were manufacturing issues with the first few dozen airplanes with that needed all that rework,” Aboulafia said, referring to the first 50-odd jets that required tweaks after they were fully built. “If it's technologies systems problems, there's more cost and pain, but if this is a manufacturing process problem there's more of an image hit.”
Schiavo believes the FAA might eventually require Boeing to stop using lithium ion batteries, the kind that exploded on a JAL 787 Monday, but mainly the recommendations are likely to concern quality control, she said.
“I sincerely doubt that they will come even close to a certificate revocation,” she said.
Aboulafia said he would have no safety worries about traveling on a 787.
“I'd be concerned that there'd be a decent chance that my flight would be canceled ... but otherwise I'd cheerfully fly on this plane,” he said. “The glitches are ugly and there's a high rate of them, but none of them have threatened the destruction of an aircraft or any lives.”
Reach Brendan Kearney at 937-5906 and follow him on Twitter at @kearney_brendan.