U.S. Authorities Launch Review of Boeing 787

 - January 11, 2013, 11:19 AM
FAA Administrator Michael Huerta will oversee a "comprehensive review" of the Boeing 787's design and manufacturing processes. (Photo: Gregory Polek)

U.S. aviation authorities announced Friday that the Federal Aviation Administration will conduct “a comprehensive review” of all Boeing 787 “critical” systems following reports of a string of incidents involving the Dreamliner, most notably Monday’s fire within the aft electronics bay of a Japan Airlines airplane parked at Boston Logan Airport. During a January 11 press conference held in Washington, D.C., FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said the review of the airplane’s design, manufacturing and assembly processes will validate the work conducted during the certification process. The FAA will place particular emphasis on the airplane’s electrical systems, including batteries and power distribution panels, he added. Plans call for the review to start in Seattle with the FAA’s Transport Directorate and possibly spread to other locations over the course of “several months.”

Huerta didn’t directly answer questions about the level of staffing the FAA will devote to the review or a timetable, nor did he elaborate on how it will differ from the oversight the agency typically carries out after it certifies an airplane, however.

Appearing at Department of Transportation headquarters with Huerta and Boeing Commercial Airplanes CEO Ray Conner, Transportation Secretary Ray La Hood expressed confidence in the safety of the airplane, but suggested a need to ensure the traveling public shares his sentiments.

“We’re going to work very hard to get to the bottom of this,” said La Hood.

“We believe this is a safe aircraft,” added Huerta. “But we want to make sure that the approved quality-control features are in place and that all of the necessary oversight is done.” Fifty 787s now fly in service worldwide, and six operate with U.S.-based United Airlines.

The announcement comes two days after intense scrutiny from the media prompted Boeing to hold a press conference during which chief program engineer Mike Sinnett said the airplane’s reliability record virtually matches that of the 777 during the same point in its service history. Speaking on a conference call last Wednesday from Everett, Washington, Sinnett tried to allay any concerns about the use of lithium-ion batteries in the 787, calling the decision to use the 32-volt units “not the only choice, but the right choice” to meet the power requirements of the so-called “more electric” airplane.

A preliminary report released last week by the U.S. National Transportation Board identified “severe fire damage” to the APU battery in the JAL 787. The event raised questions about Boeing’s use of the particular kind of battery—known to present a fire hazard in the event of an overcharge or what Sinnett called an over-discharge condition. In response, Sinnett issued a sober explanation of the dangers and the “redundancies” put in place by Boeing to protect against both conditions, as well as the spread of fire in the event of an explosion.

“In the case of this APU battery we have four separate layers of protection,” said Sinnett. “Really the only faults left that we’d be worried about are internal faults in the manufacture of the battery, of its individual cells…We have never seen that in these batteries.”

Sinnett also insisted that the string of power panel faults that led to the grounding of a pair of United Airlines 787s and a Qatar Airways Dreamliner in December do not relate to the 2010 flight-test fire in Laredo, Texas, that delayed the program by six months. That problem, identified as an electrical arc inside the power panel, has not resurfaced, said Sinnett.

“We’re working to understand [the cause of the December incidents],” said Sinnett. “It is fair to say that those issues affected one and only one channel of electrical power generation capability [out of six.] The loss of only one channel represents no safety issue whatsoever and, in fact, we’re allowed to dispatch the airplane with one of those channels inoperative.”

Meanwhile, said Sinnett, although the company hasn’t identified the root cause, it has traced the source of the problem to a single lot of circuit boards delivered by one sub-tier supplier.