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FAA’s Dreamliner probe may lead to key Boeing supplier

  • McClatchy Newspapers
  • Published Friday, Jan. 11, 2013, at 6:36 p.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013, at 7:35 p.m.

— The Federal Aviation Administration’s review of Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner could involve fresh scrutiny of a supplier that has furnished several of the plane’s key components, including faulty electrical panels and engine gearboxes that had previously grounded planes operated by three airlines.

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said Friday that the review would put emphasis on the plane’s electrical systems, batteries and power distribution panels. On Monday, a fire broke out in the auxiliary power unit in one of the aircraft, a part supplied by Charlotte, N.C.-based UTC Aerospace, a division of United Technologies, which is based in Hartford, Ct.

Andrew Martin, a spokesman for UTC Aerospace, said the company would fully support the FAA move.

“Our systems are designed with several redundancies to ensure safety and we look forward to assist in any effort to resolve in-service issues,” he said.

An FAA spokeswoman said that the process of pinpointing the cause of the problems could take weeks.

Huerta and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced the inquiry Friday after a series of problems with the $200 million aircraft, including cracks in the cockpit windshield, sticking brakes and leaking fuel. But the most serious problem involved a fire Monday in a Japan Airlines plane at Boston’s Logan International Airport.

A National Transportation Safety Board investigator reported that the auxiliary power unit battery in the rear of the plane sustained heavy damage in the fire. The blaze took 40 minutes to extinguish, and one firefighter suffered minor injuries, the NTSB said.

Kevin Hiatt, the president and CEO of the Flight Safety Foundation, an aviation safety group in Alexandria, Va., said that most of the Dreamliner snags, such as the windshield cracks and fuel leaks, are routine problems that airlines around the world experience every day.

“The only one that was a major concern is an APU battery situation,” he said. “That is the most serious issue that we’ve got.”

Though Huerta and LaHood emphasized repeatedly at their Friday news conference that the plane was safe and that such glitches are common in new aircraft, they said that the inquiry would look thoroughly at every process from the design and manufacturing of the aircraft to its certification by the FAA.

“We are confident about the safety of these aircraft,” Huerta said. “But we are concerned about these incidents and we will conduct a review until we are satisfied.”

Ray Conner, president and CEO of Boeing’s commercial airplanes division, echoed that point. "We have complete confidence in our production systems and production plants," he said.

Fifty of the planes currently are in service worldwide and another 800 have been ordered worldwide. Externally, the lightweight composite skin distinguishes it from other aircraft. Internally, the plane’s power system uses more electricity than similar sized jets, and Richard Aboulafia, an aviation consultant at the Teal Group in Washington, said that system may still have a few bugs in it.

“This is new technology,” he said. “There’s a lot of innovation and the FAA is going to check it very thoroughly.”

Boeing hired UTC Aerospace subsidiary Hamilton Sundstrand in 2004 to supply $2 million in components for each Dreamliner, including the systems that control cabin pressure and power distribution systems. The company also manufactured gearboxes for the Rolls-Royce engines ordered by Japan’s All Nippon Airways for its 787 fleet. But a defect in the gearboxes last summer grounded the planes until Rolls-Royce could replace them.

Then in December, Qatar Airways grounded three of its 787s after an electrical problem traced to other Hamilton Sundstrand parts, followed by United Airlines, which parked one of its planes.

Aboulafia said that most likely the problem is somewhere in the manufacturing process. The 787, like most other commercial aircraft, is not assembled in one place. Spirit Aerosystems puts together the Dreamliner’s nose section in Wichita, Kan. Boeing workers in North Charleston, S.C., handle the tail sections. The rest of the plane comes from sites around the world in the final assembly stage in either South Carolina or Everett, Wash.

Aboulafia said that translates to thousands of connections that have to be made.

“When you put a manufacturing process in place that involves a large numbers of procedures, you might not have that right,” he said. “If you’re not in a good workflow, then some mistakes are going to make it through the system.”

He said he didn’t think it would hurt sales of the aircraft, though rival Airbus could take advantage of Boeing’s misfortunes with its comparable A330. The decade-old 787 project has been plagued with problems and delays. Aboulafia said the current woes, while embarrassing, are “no worse than it’s been for them for the past five years or so.”

“One day this will be forgotten,” Aboulafia said. “They will recover.”

Email: ctate@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @tatecurtis

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