The reputation of Boeing's 787 Dreamliner, the long-awaited jet that promises to make flying more efficient and pleasant, has been regularly marred over the past few years, reaching what may prove to be a low point this week when two different Japan Airlines 787s at Logan International Airport in Boston had major problems.
In response, stocks are down nearly three percent today, after the FAA and Boeing announced a comprehensive review of the 787's power system that will also cover the plane's design and manufacturing.
The Promise Of The Dreamliner
Boeing's moniker for the new 787 — Dreamliner — was chosen to emphasize the fundamental, positive changes the aircraft would bring to the industry.
A special air filtration systems keeps the cabin's humidity at a higher level, so it is more comfortable at cruising altitudes. Business Insider's Steve Kovach flew first class on the Dreamliner from New York to Houston last month, and called the aircraft "incredible."
For airlines, the Dreamliner offers something even better: improved fuel efficiency, thanks to a lithium ion battery, new electrical systems, and lighter composite materials that make up its fuselage.
But those new technologies, which put the Dreamliner ahead of other aircraft, have also held the new plane back.
Boeing delivered the first Dreamliner to All Nippon Airways in September 2011 — three and a half years behind schedule.
To conserve fuel, the Dreamliner uses five times more electricity, and more electrical systems, than other jets, and is the only aircraft certified to use a lithium ion battery.
Wary of the aircraft paving new ground, the FAA certified the aircraft only with several "special conditions."
Its caution was justified. In 2009, tiny wrinkles in the composite fuselages of more than 20 planes were found. In January 2010, flaws were found in the Dreamliner's tail section.
In November 2010, debris in the electrical panel let to an in-flight fire and the grounding of Boeing's test fleet for six weeks, Bloomberg reported.
A Fresh Round Of Headaches
For about a year after that fire, things went well for the Dreamliner, culminating in FAA certification and the All Nippon Airways delivery. But now that several dozen 787s are in service, more problems have surfaced.
In July 2012, an engine component in a 787 fractured as the plane was preparing for its first flight, sparking a fire and the shutdown of a South Carolina airport, according to the Daily Mail.
December 2012 was especially rough for Boeing. Fuel leaks on two planes led the FAA to issue an airworthiness directive on December 5, requiring checks of fuel-line connectors in all Dreamliners.
The day before, a United Airlines flight from Houston to Newark made an emergency landing after it a computer falsely indicated one of the plane's power generators had failed. Qatar Airways and Chilean LAN Airlines had similar issues, Aviation Week reported.
In Boeing's Defense
Despite all these issues, Boeing stands by the 787. Dreamliner Chief Engineer Mike Sinnett argues the problems are no worse than those that faced the 777, which has had no serious issues since its 1995 introduction.
In a statement today, Boeing said: "Like the 777, at 15 months of service, we are seeing the 787's fleet wide dispatch reliability well above 90 percent."
"Just like any new airplane program, we move through these issues and move on," Sinnett said in a conference call Wednesday. "We're not satisfied until our reliability and our performance are 100 percent."
In a statement announcing the review of the 787's critical systems, FAA Administrator Michael P. Huerta echoed his point: "We are confident that the aircraft is safe. But we need to have a complete understanding of what is happening."
But the promise of the Dreamliner and its history of delays have focused the critical gaze of investors, government administrators, and the public, magnifying the impact of each stumble.
The Dreamliner's Future
The FAA review itself is a bad sign for Boeing, and comes after an especially rough week. A fire broke out in the belly of a Japan Airlines Dreamliner at Boston's Logan International Airport on Monday. Tuesday, 40 gallons of fuel leaked from a different Japan Airlines Dreamliner, also at Logan.
After Monday's fire, United Airlines inspected its own fleet of Dreamliners, and a source told the Wall Street Journal faulty wiring was found (United would not confirm this finding). That wiring was related to the auxiliary power unit battery, the unit that was badly damaged in the Japan Airlines fire: an ominous sign.
Today, a crack appeared in the cockpit window of a All Nippon Airways 787 in Japan, Reuters reported, a change from problems that have mostly come from the plane's electrical systems.
The FAA review will cover the Dreamliner's "design, manufacture, and assembly." If it finds problems, Boeing should hope they are in the manufacture and assembly stages: A fault in the design of the aircraft would require it to go back and make fundamental changes in how the plane is built.
Boeing has delivered only 50 Dreamliners, and is behind on delivering the 800 it has taken orders for.
Designing, certifying, and introducing a new airplane is a major investment that takes many deliveries to pay off. If the FAA condemns some part of the Dreamliner, the damage, in terms of money and reputation, could be devastating.
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