WRAPUP-Two Boeing 787 incidents raise concerns about jet

Tue Jan 8, 2013 6:41pm EST

By Alwyn Scott
    NEW YORK, Jan 8 (Reuters) - Boeing Co's new 787
Dreamliner suffered its second mishap in two days at the same
airport with the same airline, extending a series of problems
that have dogged the jet for more than a month and notched up
concern about the plane.
    A fuel leak on Tuesday forced a 787 operated by Japan
Airlines to cancel takeoff at Boston's Logan
International Airport. On Monday, an electrical fire erupted in
a different 787 also operated by Japan Airlines at the Boston
airport.
    No passengers or crew were injured, but both incidents
brought out firefighters, and the National Transportation Safety
Board on Tuesday bulked up the team investigating the fire.
    The incidents were stark reminders of a string of teething
problems that have hit the Dreamliner since July, prompting
federal regulators to call for engine and fuel line inspections,
among other measures. 
    Boeing said it was aware of the issue and was working with
its customer. Boeing stock ended down nearly 2.7 percent at
$74.13 Tuesday, following a 2 percent decline on Monday.    
 
    Many Wall Street analysts continued to rate the stock a buy
or outperform, mainly because Boeing is delivering jets at a
rapid pace and reaping the resulting revenue.
    Some expressed concern, noting the potential for the
combination of a fire and a fuel leak to affect the public
perception of Boeing and the Dreamliner.
    Carter Leake, an analyst at BB&T Capital Markets in
Virginia, downgraded Boeing to "hold" from "buy" based on the
fire alone, noting that fires are potentially lethal and
electrical issues are tough to solve. 
    He and others stopped short of calling it a game changer for
Boeing. 
    "We're getting to a tipping point where they go from needing
to rectify problems to doing major damage control to the image
of the company and the plane," said Richard Aboulafia, a defense
and aerospace analyst with Teal Group, a consulting firm based
in Fairfax, Virginia. 
    "While they delivered a large and unexpected number of 787s
last year, it's possible that they should have instead focused
on identifying glitches and flaws, rather than pushing ahead
with volume production," he said.
    Aboulafia said there is still no indication that the plane
itself is flawed. 
    "It's just a question of how quickly they can get all the
onboard technologies right, and whether or not the 787 and
Boeing brands will be badly damaged," he said.
    The fuel leak on Tuesday was noticed at about 12:25 pm ET,
after the plane had left the gate in preparation for takeoff on
a flight to Tokyo. About 40 gallons spilled, and the jet was
towed back to the gate, where passengers disembarked, said
Richard Walsh, a spokesman for state transportation authority
Massport. The plane departed about four hours behind schedule,
according to the flight tracking site Flightaware.com.
    A Japan Airlines spokeswoman, Carol Anderson, confirmed that
the plane later departed.
    The fire on Monday occurred on a different 787 plane that
had just arrived from Tokyo and whose 183 passengers and crew
had departed. 
    The NTSB said Tuesday that a battery in the auxiliary power
unit aboard the plane jet had suffered "severe fire damage" and
that surrounding damage was limited to components and structures
within about 20 inches. It said the power unit was operating
when the fire was discovered.
    The agency sent one investigator to the scene on Monday and
added two more on Tuesday. The FAA, Boeing, the Japan Transport
Safety Board and Japan Airlines are also investigating.
    The NTSB said Tuesday's fuel leak would not warrant an
investigation because there was no accident.
    Boeing said it is cooperating with the investigations and it
would be premature to discuss details since the fire probe is
continuing. 
    "However, nothing we've seen in this case indicates a
relationship to any previous 787 power system events, which
involved power panel faults elsewhere in the aft electrical
equipment bay," Boeing said, referring to the area where the
fire occurred. "Information about the prior events has been
shared with the NTSB and they are aware of the details."
    Separately, the Wall Street Journal, citing a source,
reported that United Airlines found improperly installed
wiring in 787 electrical components associated with the
auxiliary power unit, the same electrical system that caused the
fire aboard a Japan Airlines 787 in Boston on Monday. 
    United spokeswoman Christen David said United inspected its
787s after the Boston fire incident, but she declined to discuss
the findings, or to confirm the Journal report.
    The fuel leak comes after the FAA in December ordered
inspections of all 787s after fuel leaks were found on two
aircraft operated by airlines. The leaks stemmed from
incorrectly assembled fuel line couplings, which could result in
loss of power or an engine fire, the FAA said.
    Mechanical problems are not uncommon when new planes begin
service and they often disrupt airline schedules, as they have
done with United and Japan Airlines, experts said.
    "I think we are dealing here with a situation where this
aircraft is over-scrutinized for a number of reasons, including
the birth difficulties," said Michel Merluzeau, managing partner
at G2 Solutions, a boutique defense and aerospace consulting
firm in Seattle. 
    The Dreamliner was delivered 3-1/2 years behind schedule.
    "Don't get me wrong. A battery fire is a very, very serious
event. Especially a lithium-ion battery," he added. "And we
don't know what the problem is. But the 787s is still a very
safe aircraft to fly." 
    Ken Herbert, an analyst with Imperial Capital, said he was
concerned that some of the recent incidents could reflect issues
with suppliers or product quality. And it might prompt airlines
to take extra care with the plane. But he and other analysts
cautioned against drawing conclusions until the cause -- and
Boeing's response -- are known. 
      "The economics of this aircraft are still very favorable,"
Herbert said. "My outlook for the long-term success of the 787
certainly hasn't changed materially as a result of what's
happened over the last few days."