Why Boeing's dream plane is causing headaches
- Article by: SCOTT MAYEROWITZ
- Associated Press
- January 11, 2013 - 1:15 PM
NEW YORK - Boeing's 787 Dreamliner had a nightmare of a week, capped off Friday 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 — nearly 50 of them are in the skies now. However, a fire Monday and subsequent spate of technical problems raised enough questions to prompt this highly unusual review. None of the eight airlines using the plane have plans to stop flying it during the government's inquiry.
The technologically advanced plane was delayed for more than three years. Boeing delivered the first one in late 2011. The company is ramping up production to build 10 787s per month in Washington state and South Carolina by the end of the year.
The Dreamliner promises passengers a more comfortable travel experience. For the airlines, the plane's fuel-efficiency allows them to economically connect secondary cities.
Below are questions and answers about the 787 and the issues that led to the FAA's action Friday.
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 but stronger than the aluminum used in traditional planes. That means the plane 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 a typical aircraft. That means fewer dry throats and stuffy noses.
What else is different about the plane?
More than any other modern airliner, the 787 relies on electrical signals to help power nearly everything it does. 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 allowed Boeing to get rid of the heavier hot air system used in older planes, thereby increasing the plane's fuel efficiency.
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 plane's problems.
"I believe this plane is safe and I would have absolutely no reservations about boarding one of these planes and taking a flight," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Friday.
Q: Does any other plane use composites?
A: Composites are used in smaller amounts on most modern planes. Rival plane maker Airbus is designing its own lightweight composite jet, the A350, but that jet is still several years away from flying.
Q: Didn't it take Boeing a long time to get the 787 airborne?
A: Boeing first applied to the FAA to make the 787 in 2003. The first plane flew in December 2009 and six test planes ran up some 4,645 flight hours. About a quarter of those hours were flown by FAA flight test crews. The first paying passengers took flight in October 2011, more than three years behind schedule.
Q: Why the delays?
A: Parts for the jet are made by 52 suppliers scattered around the globe. And, in a first for Boeing, large sections of the jet are built by these outside vendors and then cobbled together. That process, aimed at saving money, wasn't as smooth as Boeing had hoped.
Q: How many 787s are there?
A: Boeing has delivered 50 planes so far. Another 798 are on order. The company plans to be building 10 each month by the end of this year.
Q: Is it normal for a new plane to have problems?
A: Any complicated piece of machinery has glitches at first. The Airbus A380, for instance, had an engine explode midflight in late 2010. The unique nature of the 787's construction — and the increased media spotlight on this plane — however have regulators doing a more thorough review.
Boeing insists that the 787's problems are no worse than what it experienced when its 777 was new in the mid-1990s. That plane is now one of its top-sellers and is well-liked by airlines.
"Every new commercial aircraft has issues as it enters service," said Ray Conner, the president and CEO of Boeing's commercial aircraft division, on Friday, as he attended the FAA's news conference.
Q: What airlines fly the 787?
A: Japan's All Nippon Airways is the largest operator of the plane. United is the first U.S. airline customer with six. Air India, Ethiopian Airlines, Japan Airlines, LAN Airlines, LOT Polish Airlines and Qatar Airways also fly the plane.
Q: Where in the U.S. does the plane fly?
A: United Airlines is the only U.S. carrier to fly the plane. It flies the plane between Los Angles and Tokyo and between its various hubs such as Newark, N.J. and Houston and between Los Angles and Houston.
All Nippon Airways flies from Seattle and San Jose, Calif. to Tokyo; Japan Airlines flies from Boston to Tokyo and LAN flies from Los Angeles to Santiago, Chile. Ethiopian started flying the plane to Washington's Dulles International Airport in late September but put a different aircraft on that route in the middle of December.
Q: How big of a decision is the FAA review?
A: Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with the Teal Group, called it "pretty remarkable."
"They're taking a step for all the right reasons. There does appear to be a systematic problem either with the manufacturing process or with some of the technologies. This is needed to reassure the public."
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 United Parcel Service Boeing 747-400 crashed in Dubai after a large number of the batteries it was carrying as cargo caught on fire.
Q: What's at stake for Boeing?
A: The 787 was three and a half years late. Any more production delays could further upset the airlines that are eager to start flying the plane and cost Boeing millions of dollars in contractual penalties. If major changes are needed, the plane might weigh more, cutting its fuel efficiency. Orders could shift to the Airbus A350.
Q: Where is the plane manufactured?
A: Boeing has two assembly lines for the 787. The first is at its plant in Everett, Wash. where other large planes such as the 747 and 777 are built. The other, newer line, is in North Charleston, S.C. Union workers assemble Boeing planes in Washington, while non-union workers make the 787s built in South Carolina.
AP writers Joshua Freed in Minneapolis and Joan Lowy in Washington contributed to this report.
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