WRAPUP 3-Boeing Dreamliner incidents raise safety concerns

Wed Jan 9, 2013 9:01am EST

By Alwyn Scott and James Topham
    NEW YORK/TOKYO, Jan 9 (Reuters) - Boeing Co's 787
Dreamliner jet suffered a third mishap in as many days on
Wednesday, heightening safety concerns after a string of
setbacks for the new aircraft.
    Japan's All Nippon Airways said it was forced to
cancel a 787 Dreamliner flight scheduled to from fly from
Yamaguchi prefecture in western Japan to Tokyo due to brake
problems. 
    That followed a fuel leak on Tuesday that forced a 787
operated by Japan Airlines to cancel take-off at
Boston's Logan International Airport, a day after an electrical
fire on another 787 after a JAL flight to Boston from Tokyo.
    Asian customers rallied behind the U.S. planemaker, however,
saying such teething troubles were not uncommon on new planes
and confirming they had no plans to scale back or cancel orders
for the aircraft, which has a list price of $207 million.
    Japan is by far the biggest customer for the Dreamliner to
date, with JAL and All Nippon Airways (ANA) operating a
total of 24 of the 49 new planes delivered to end-December. The
aircraft entered commercial service in November 2011, more than
three years behind schedule after a series of production delays.
Boeing has sold 848 of the planes.
    JAL spokesman Kazunori Kidosaki said the carrier, which
operates seven Dreamliners, had no plans to change orders it has
placed for another 38 aircraft. ANA, which has 17 Dreamliners
flying its colors, will also stick with its orders for another
49, spokesman Etsuya Uchiyama said.
    
     State-owned Air India, which on Monday took delivery of the
sixth of the 27 Dreamliners it has ordered, said precautionary
measures were already in place and its planes were flying
smoothly. "It's a new plane, and some minor glitches do happen.
It's not a cause of concern," said spokesman G.Prasada Rao.
    There was no immediate suggestion that the 787 Dreamliner,
the world's first passenger jet built mainly from carbon-plastic
lightweight materials to save fuel, was likely to be grounded as
investigators looked into the fire incident. 
    Air China , which sees the 787 as a way
to expand its international routes, and Hainan Airlines
 also said they were keeping their orders for 15 and
10 of the planes. 
    "New airplanes more or less will need adjustments, and
currently we have no plans to swap or cancel orders," said an
executive at future 787 operator Hainan Airlines, who was not
authorized to talk to the media and did not want to be named.
    Qatar Airways Chief Executive Akbar Al Baker, who has
previously criticized technical problems or delays with Boeing
or Airbus jets, said there were no technical problems
with the five 787s currently in use by the Gulf carrier.
    "It doesn't mean we are going to cancel our orders. It's a
revolutionary airplane," he said.
    Other carriers already flying the Dreamliner are Ethiopian
Airlines, LAN Airlines, LOT Polish Airlines 
and United Airlines.
     
    40 GALLON SPILL
    The fuel leak on Tuesday was noticed at about 12:25 p.m. ET
(1725 GMT) after the plane had left the gate in preparation for
take-off to Tokyo. About 40 gallons spilled, and the jet was
towed back to the gate, where passengers disembarked, said
Richard Walsh, a spokesman for the transportation authority.
    The plane departed about four hours behind schedule and was
due to arrive in Tokyo on Wednesday evening.
    No passengers or crew were injured in either incident,
though firefighters were called out on both occasions. 
    Boeing shares fell nearly 2.7 percent on Tuesday, following
a 2 percent drop on Monday - wiping around $2.8 billion off its
market value, or more than a dozen Dreamliners at list price.
    While many Wall Street analysts rate Boeing stock a 'buy' or
'outperform' - the manufacturer has delivered jets faster than
the market predicted - some noted the potential for the
combination of a fire and a fuel leak to affect public
perception of Boeing and the new aircraft.
    People working at OG Travel and Eurex, travel agents in
Tokyo, said they had not seen any impact on reservations on
flights using the 787 aircraft. "I've not heard of any
cancellations following these incidents," Eurex staffer Yasuhiro
Hirashiki told Reuters.
    Carter Leake, an analyst at BB&T Capital Markets in
Virginia, downgraded Boeing shares, noting that fires are
potentially lethal and electrical issues are tough to solve,
though he and others stopped short of calling it a game changer
for the Seattle-based manufacturer.
    "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.
    
    BATTERY FIRE
    Monday's fire occurred on a 787 plane that had just arrived
from Tokyo and whose 183 passengers and crew had disembarked.
    The National Transportation Safety Board said on Tuesday 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.
    Shares in GS Yuasa Corp, the Japanese firm that
makes the Dreamliner batteries, fell around 5 percent in Tokyo
on Wednesday after dropping 4 percent a day earlier.
    Boeing said it was cooperating with the investigations, but
it would be premature to go into detail.
    "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 (where the fire occurred)," the company said.
    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 Monday's fire. 
    United spokeswoman Christen David said the carrier inspected
its 787s after the Boston fire, but she declined to discuss the
findings, or to confirm the Journal report.
    The Federal Aviation Administration last month ordered all
787s to be inspected after fuel leaks were found on two
aircraft, due, it said, to incorrectly assembled fuel line
couplings that could result in power loss or an engine fire.
    Mechanical problems are not uncommon when new planes enter
service and they often disrupt airline schedules, experts said.
    "I think we're 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 defense and aerospace consulting firm G2 Solutions.
    "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."
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