U.S. to review Boeing 787 safety issues

WASHINGTON/NEW YORK Fri Jan 11, 2013 1:05pm EST

An All Nippon Airways' (ANA) Boeing 787 Dreamliner plane is seen before taking off for the Tokyo-San Jose flight at New Tokyo international airport in Narita, east of Tokyo January 11, 2013. REUTERS/Shohei Miyano

An All Nippon Airways' (ANA) Boeing 787 Dreamliner plane is seen before taking off for the Tokyo-San Jose flight at New Tokyo international airport in Narita, east of Tokyo January 11, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Shohei Miyano

WASHINGTON/NEW YORK (Reuters) - The United States ordered a wide review of Boeing's latest passenger jet, the 787 Dreamliner, citing "concern" over a spate of technical problems in recent weeks.

Regulators said the Dreamliner remained safe to fly but a thorough examination was needed to identify the root cause of the problems including a fire on a parked 787 on Monday.

"There are concerns about recent events involving the Boeing 787. That is why today we are conducting a comprehensive review," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told a news conference.

The review will put an emphasis on the 787's advanced electrical systems and cover their design, manufacture and assembly, the Federal Aviation Administration said.

The move comes on top of a separate probe by U.S. safety investigators into a battery fire which caused "serious damage" to an empty Japan Airlines (9201.T) 787 jet at Boston airport on Monday.

Adding to incidents that have tested confidence in the world's first mainly carbon-composite airliner, the jet suffered a cracked cockpit window and an oil leak on separate flights in Japan on Friday.

The 787 is Boeing's newest jet and its boldest effort to revolutionize commercial aviation by using new technology to cut the fuel cost for operating the plane by 20 percent.

Each lightweight jet has a list price of $207 million.

Airlines are pleased with the savings, and have so far given the plane their approval, both by ordering more than 800 jets and mostly sticking by it through the current spate of troubles.

But Boeing already is far over its budget and more than three years behind schedule in delivering Dreamliner planes.

Shares of Boeing fell 2.5 percent to $75.17 in early trading on Friday.

The wide-ranging review by U.S. officials has the potential to deal a setback to Boeing's newest jet, especially if it leads to a costly design change.

It is also a significant test for the recently-appointed chief executive of Boeing's commercial airplanes division, Ray Conner, who also attended Friday's Washington news conference.

Conner, who was previously Boeing's commercial sales chief, said the company was committed to making the plane as reliable as possible and that its backup systems had been working well.

"We have complete confidence in the 787 and so do our customers," Conner said.

The Federal Aviation Administration wants to maintain public confidence in the Dreamliner, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said.

LaHood said he would not hesitate to fly on a 787 himself.

BOEING CONFIDENCE

A growing media storm about the 787 glitches echoes global publicity a year ago over wing cracks on the A380 superjumbo, built by Boeing's European rival Airbus EAD.PA.

The A380 has also been deemed safe to fly and few airlines have reported a dip in bookings, but the problems are expected to end up costing Airbus up to 500 million euros in repairs.

In both cases, everyday glitches have been swept up in the wider storm of publicity and attracted unusual attention, along with more serious problems.

"I can't think of any similar investigations, but apart from the battery fire, all the other things we have seen are 'so what?'" Paul Hayes, safety director at aviation consultancy Ascend, said of the FAA review.

The 787 Dreamliner made its first commercial flight in late-2011 after a series of production delays put deliveries more than three years behind schedule. By the end of last year, Boeing had sold 848 Dreamliners. It now has 50 in service.

Conner said the recent issues had not been caused by either outsourcing production or boosting it too quickly.

"We have complete confidence in the 787 and so do our customers," he said.

The 787 makes extensive use of electrical components to perform tasks previously carried out by heavier equipment such as hydraulics.

In India - where state-owned Air India has taken delivery of six Dreamliner jets and has more on order - a senior official at the aviation regulator said there was concern at the recent spate of Dreamliner glitches.

The Directorate General of Civil Aviation has not ordered any Dreamliner checks for now, but is waiting for a safety report on Monday's fire from the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, the official said. (Reporting by Kentaro Sugiyama, James Topham, Mari Saito, Mayumi Negishi and Maki Shiraki in TOKYO, Anurag Kotoky in NEW DELHI, Deborah Charles in WASHINGTON, Ernest Scheyder in NEW YORK and Aman Shah in Bangalore; Writing by Ian Geoghegan; Editing by Alex Richardson and Nick Zieminski)

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