SEATTLE -- Federal regulators pledged Friday to carefully examine the design and production of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner with a focus on its electrical systems.
The rare in-depth review was prompted by a rash of recent 787 incidents, including electrical faults in flight and a fire inside a parked Dreamliner last Monday.
Officials also sought to reassure the traveling public about the plane's safety as Boeing's new jet continues to fly with 50 airplanes in service and more than 150 flights every day.
Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood led a high-profile news conference in Washington, D.C., joined by new Federal Aviation Administration chief Michael Huerta and Boeing Commercial Airplanes Chief Executive Ray Conner.
"Maintaining the best and the safest aviation system in the world means going the extra mile when it comes to safety," LaHood said. "We will look for the root causes of recent events and do everything we can to ensure these events don't happen again."
Huerta said the review will cover not only the jet's design but also the manufacturing processes, down to the level of Boeing's suppliers.
"We want to make sure the approved quality-control procedures are in place and that all the necessary oversight is done," Huerta said.
"We are confident about the safety of this aircraft," he said, "But we are concerned about these incidents and will conduct the review until we are completely satisfied."
Boeing's Conner said the company and the airlines flying the jet are satisfied that is safe. Nonetheless, he added, "We welcome any opportunity to further reassure people outside the industry about the integrity of the airplane."
All three reiterated several times their belief that the Dreamliner is safe to fly on.
Even when things have gone wrong recently -- such as when an electrical-panel fault due to a faulty circuit board caused a United Airlines jet out of Houston to divert to New Orleans in December -- "the airplane performed exactly as designed" and the jet's multiple redundant safety features ensured passengers were never at risk, said Conner.
LaHood said he "would have absolutely no reservation of boarding one of these planes and taking a flight."
Huerta acknowledged the importance of the 787 to Boeing and to the U.S. economy and said that's why "we care about maintaining public confidence that it is safe."
Aviation industry analyst Adam Pilarski of consulting firm Avitas said the government's move is necessary to restore confidence and will ultimately benefit Boeing by doing so.
"When you have a few things happening all at once, people's minds become very fertile. I think this is the proper way to do it before things get out of hand and people's imaginations run wild," Pilarski said.
"These are teething problems."
He said the series of recent incidents, both minor and more serious -- in particular, the battery fire that broke out in the electronics bay of a Japan Airlines 787 in Boston on Monday, shortly after 183 passengers and crew members had disembarked -- has shaken confidence.
It's positive for Boeing, he said, that "the government is saying that we are reviewing it, but in the meantime it's safe to fly."
The FAA had two worse alternatives to Friday's step, he added.
One was to do nothing, which he said would have left the "festering doubt" in the public mind, with some people remaining unconvinced by Boeing's assurances.
The other option, a drastic grounding of the fleet, would have done immense harm to Boeing.
Pilarski worked at McDonnell Douglas in 1979 when an American Airlines DC-10 crash in Chicago that killed more than 270 people prompted the FAA to ground the fleet, a move that essentially doomed the program.
Industry analyst Richard Aboulafia of the Teal Group concurred with Pilarski that the FAA's action is the best option for Boeing in the long run.
"They are doing exactly what they need to do," he said.
But in the short term, Aboulafia said, the review will soak up time and engineering resources at Boeing as well as at the FAA and could slow down the planned 787 ramp-up, which is supposed to double to 10 per month by year end.
"It should, frankly," Aboulafia said. He questioned the wisdom of delivering 46 of the jets last year.
"They should have gotten the rhythm first" before ramping up so much, he said. "They should have built it with zero defects first."
But at the news conference, Conner was adamant that Boeing's manufacturing processes are in good shape, both in Everett, Wash., and in North Charleston, S.C.
"I don't think any of these issues have anything to do with the production ramp-up," he said.
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Conner added that the problems that have arisen should not be attributed to the extensive outsourcing on the Dreamliner program.
"We have complete confidence in our production system and manufacturing processes as well as the design," he said.
That production system will now get intense scrutiny from a team of technical experts that will be based in Seattle, Huerta said.
He said the review is "a very high priority" for his agency and will be conducted "as expeditiously as possible."
The FAA will examine all the data and take any action needed to increase safety, Huerta said.
LaHood stressed that the examination will dig deep to find the root causes of the recent problems.
"We're going to work very hard to get to the bottom of this," LaHood said.
PROBLEMS WITH 787'S ELECTRICAL SYSTEMS:
--Jan. 7: Japan Airlines 787 catches fire on the ground in Boston; NTSB says "severe fire damage" found in lithium-ion battery in electronics bay.
--Dec. 14, 2012: A United Airlines 787 is grounded; airline blames "a problem with an electrical panel." Boeing said Tuesday that this and the three other incidents last year were traced to faulty circuit boards in the power-distribution panel, and arcing was found when the panels were inspected.
--Dec. 9, 2012: On its delivery flight from Boeing, a Qatar Airways 787 reports an electrical problem.
--Dec. 4, 2012: A United 787 carrying passengers from Houston to Newark, N.J., lands safely in New Orleans after pilot reported an electrical malfunction.
--Summer 2012: A Dreamliner operated by either All Nippon Airways or Japan Airlines (Boeing won't identify the customer) encounters an electrical fault; incident unreported until this week.
--Nov. 9, 2010: Fire breaks out during a 787 test flight, forcing an emergency landing in Laredo, Texas. Boeing later says foreign debris in the P100 power-distribution panel caused the fire, which grounded flight testing for more than two months while the panel was redesigned.
SOURCE: Seattle Times reporting
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