The Federal Aviation Administration has ordered a comprehensive review of Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner after a fire and a fuel leak aboard two aircraft at Logan International Airport earlier this week, but the action is not expected to have an immediate impact on Japan Airlines’ daily Boston-Tokyo flight.
Michael Huerta, the FAA administrator, said at a news conference Friday that there is nothing in the data the agency has seen to suggest the plane isn’t safe, but he remains concerned about recent incidents.
“We’re focusing on the electrical systems as the highest level of priority,” he said.
The review will examine the 787’s critical systems, including design, manufacture and assembly, as well as the interaction between the electrical and mechanical systems on the plane. The FAA gave no indication that the agency intends to limit or prohibit the 787 from flying during the review.
“I believe this plane is safe and I would have absolutely no reservations about boarding one of these planes and taking a flight,” said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
A small fire ignited in the battery pack of an auxiliary power unit on an empty Japan Airlines 787 at Logan on Monday, knocking out Boston’s only flight to Asia. It took firefighters 40 minutes to put out the blaze. On Tuesday, a Japan Airlines 787 at Logan was temporarily grounded after spilling 40 gallons of fuel while awaiting takeoff.
“There is no plan at this stage for any changes to our 787 routes or orders of the aircraft,” said Japan Airlines spokeswoman Carol Anderson.
The Dreamliner, Boeing’s newest and most technologically advanced plane, is made of lightweight composite materials instead of aluminum and relies more than any other modern airliner on electrical signals to help power nearly everything the plane does. It’s also the first Boeing plane to use rechargeable lithium ion batteries, which charge faster and can be molded to space-saving shapes compared to other airplane batteries, but are also more susceptible to fire because, unlike other aircraft batteries, the liquid inside of them is flammable.
The first 787s entered service in late 2011, and have has since been hampered by high-profile problems. On Dec. 5, the Federal Aviation Administration ordered inspections of all Dreamliners in service at the time after receiving reports of fuel leaks on two aircraft operated by foreign airlines. That led to discovery of incorrectly assembled fuel couplings that could result in fuel leaks and lead to loss of power or fire, according to the FAA, though the issues at Logan appeared to be unrelated.
Boeing is also investigating electrical issues on the 787 after incidents involving at least four aircraft, including a United Airlines flight from Houston to Newark that was diverted to New Orleans last month after experiencing a midflight electrical problem.
On Friday, Japan’s All Nippon Airways reported two new cases of problems with the aircraft. ANA spokeswoman Ayumi Kunimatsu said a very small amount of oil was discovered leaking from the left engine of a 787 flight from southern Japan’s Miyazaki airport to Tokyo.
The jet returned to Miyazaki, but after checks found no safety risk it flew to Tokyo. ANA said on another flight, to Matsuyama on the island of Shikoku, glass in a cockpit window cracked and the aircraft was grounded for repairs.
A Boeing official said the company is working with the FAA.
“We are absolutely confident in the reliability and performance of the 787,” Boeing spokesman Marc Birtel said. “We are working with the FAA and our customers to ensure we thoroughly understand any introductory issues that arise. While we take each issue seriously, nothing we’ve seen in service causes us to doubt the capabilities of the airplane.”
Aviation experts say new plane models typically experience glitches when they first start flying, although the 787 may be more prone to issues because it is so technologically advanced. Boeing has insisted 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.
Boeing has delivered 50 of the 787s, starting in late 2011, and has orders for nearly 800 more.
Huerta and LaHood rejected the notion that the FAA may have not have vigilant enough when it certified the 787 for commercial operations. LaHood noted FAA technical experts logged some 200,000 hours on testing and reviewing the plane’s design before it was certified in August 2011.
The review also raises questions about the 787’s ability to win approval to fly extremely long distances away from airports. That’s a huge issue, since the 787’s long range is one of its main selling points. Regulators want to know that long-range planes are safe to fly even if the nearest airport is more than an hour way. Such certification is important for flights across the Pacific, or over the North Pole, the route used for many flights between North America and Asia.
The 787 already has approval for flights up to three hours away from the nearest airport. It has met the flight test requirements to go up to 5.5 hours away but doesn’t have permission yet because of a rule change by the FAA, said 787 chief engineer Mike Sinnett on Wednesday.