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Dreamliner problems may be more irritating than substantial

  • Los Angeles Times
  • Published Thursday, Dec. 27, 2012, at 6:49 a.m.

Aerospace giant Boeing Co. just can’t seem to escape trouble with its new 787 Dreamliner passenger jet.

More than three years late because of design problems and supplier issues, the much-anticipated plane has run into another bout of turbulence with fresh concerns about its safety.

The Federal Aviation Administration this month ordered inspections of fuel line connectors on Dreamliners because of risks of leaks and possible fires.

On the same day, a United Airlines Dreamliner flight from Houston to Newark, N.J., was diverted to New Orleans after an electrical problem popped up mid-flight. After accepting delivery of the aircraft just a month earlier, Qatar Airways later said it had grounded a Dreamliner for the same problem that United experienced.

Despite criticism of the problem-plagued program, Boeing is confident that the plane will be a success once it gets more miles under its wings.

“We’re having what we would consider the normal number of squawks on a new airplane, consistent with other new airplanes we’ve introduced,” Boeing chief executive Jim McNerney said in an interview on cable network CNBC.

“We regret the impact on our customers, obviously,” he said. “But … we’re working through it.”

The Dreamliner, a twin-aisle aircraft that seats 210 to 290 passengers, is the first large passenger jet with more than half its structure made of composite materials (carbon fibers meshed together with epoxy) instead of aluminum sheets. Major parts for the plane are assembled elsewhere and then shipped to Everett, Wash., where they are “snapped together” in three days, compared with a month in the traditional way.

Boeing says the new plane burns 20 percent less fuel than other jetliners of a similar size. Because of this, the plane has been hotly sought-after. Through November, Boeing had delivered 38 Dreamliners.

The Chicago company has taken 844 orders for the plane from airlines and aircraft leasing firms around the world. Depending on the version ordered, the price ranges from $206.8 million to $243.6 million per jet.

Early customers get massive rebates on the first planes delivered because of bugs that may pop up in production. The planemaker sells these early aircraft at a loss.

David Strauss, an aerospace analyst at UBS Financial Services, said in a note to investors this month that his analysis indicates Dreamliner production “costs are not declining rapidly enough for (Boeing) to come close to its target for break-even 787 cash flow by early 2015.”

Boeing spokesman Chaz Bickers said he would not comment on Strauss’ analysis, but he did say that the company had already cut its production cost per plane by half. He did not specify how much that was.

“We’re very pleased on the progress and confident on our processes,” he said. “Once we get to 10 Dreamliners a month and stay there, that’s when we expect a healthy production system.”

Boeing is currently making five Dreamliners a month. The company doesn’t plan on reaching 10 a month until late next year.

Many of the planes so far have gone to Japanese carrier All Nippon Airways, which has 16 of them. The airline said the Dreamliner has exceeded its expectations.

Since All Nippon began flying the planes in November 2011, it has flown nearly 7 million miles and saved 21 percent more fuel per flight than a different aircraft of similar size.

The company also took a customer survey that found 98 percent of passengers said they would like to fly again on the Dreamliner.

“This is better than what we initially expected,” said Kohei Tsuji, an All Nippon spokesman. “And the financial impact will only grow bigger for ANA as we continue to operate more Dreamliners.”

Scott Hamilton, an aviation industry consultant and managing director of Leeham Co. in Issaquah, Wash., said that the latest Dreamliner problems are “irritants more than substance.”

“The 787 problems are annoying for the airlines and embarrassing for Boeing,” he said. “But I don’t see these as major issues to worry about.”

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