Dreamliner’s power problem likely no problem for Boeing

Boeing Co. has delivered more than 260 Dreamliners to customer, including this American Airlines 787 that will make its first commerical flight next week.

The scenario is certainly terrifying: A 787 Dreamliner commercial airplane losing all power in the middle of a flight with more than 200 passengers aboard.

The reality, however, is that this week’s Federal Aviation Administration notice warning of the possibility of such an occurrence likely won’t amount to much for Boeing Co., its customers, passengers or the North Charleston campus where Dreamliners are made.

“I don’t think there is any cause for any alarm whatsoever,” said Saj Ahmad, chief analyst for Strategic Aero Research, an aerospace analyst group. “Like all airworthiness directives issued by the FAA ... they are precautionary measures to prevent any given scenario from transpiring.”

The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal reported this week that federal regulators will order Dreamliner operators to reboot the plane’s electrical power from time to time to keep the airplane’s power control units from suddenly — and unexpectedly — shutting down all of the electric generators at the same time, an issue that could take place even while a plane is in flight.

The problem — outlined in a Federal Register publication this week — is linked to a software error that Boeing discovered during laboratory testing. Such a shutdown has never occurred in real-life situations, and the aerospace giant expects to have a software update available by the end of the year.

In the meantime, operators of the more than 260 Dreamliners that have been delivered are being warned not to let the generators operate continuously for months at a time. Shutting down the generators and then powering the plane back up at least once every 248 days seems to solve the problem.

That’s something that already happens during the routine inspection and operation of 787s.

“The FAA issues airworthiness directives all the time, even on the very popular (Airbus) A320 and (Boeing) 737s,” said Uresh Sheth, a New York investment banker and Dreamliner analyst who authors the “All Things 787” website.

“With regards to the power generators, it’s worth noting that it’s happened in a lab and not on in-service aircraft,” Sheth said. “This is a software glitch which Boeing intends to fix, but in the meantime there is a work-around so that the generators don’t shut down in flight. This is being done out of an abundance of caution.”

Analysts say they don’t expect the problem to hurt sales of the Dreamliner, a new breed of airplane made of composite materials that let it fly farther and with less fuel than its predecessors.

“This has absolutely no impact at all on either future sales or the 787’s revolutionary technology that is slashing bills for its operators,” Ahmad said.

Sheth agrees, saying: “I don’t think it’ll hurt sales one bit.”

“I expect Boeing to be able to sell a significant number of 787s this year,” Sheth said, pointing to an expected large order of either 787-9 or 787-10 models to come from Emirates Airline. He also said Qantas this year could exercise 50 purchase rights for 787 airplanes “as long as their finances keep improving.”

The latest FAA notice is reminiscent of the Dreamliner’s lithium-ion battery problems in early 2013, when the entire fleet was grounded for more than three months after at least four 787s experienced electrical problems, including two batteries that caught fire on separate planes while they were on the ground. Boeing eventually solved the problem by redesigning the battery casing and internal fuel cells.

Sheth said this week’s power generator warning is “certainly not on the level of the battery issue that they went through in 2013.”

“I would not compare this to the earlier reported battery angst,” Ahmad added. “They aren’t connected, and passengers have no reason to be concerned. If anything, they should be more reassured that the 787 fleet is conforming to ever-changing FAA requirements that ultimately enhance, not reduce safety.”

Perhaps the best measure of the impact this latest issue will have on Chicago-based Boeing came Friday. One day after the problem went public, the company’s stock shot up $1.33 per share on Wall Street to close at $144.67 per share.

Problem? What problem?

Reach David Wren at 937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_