Transportation Secretary Says Dreamliner Plane Safe Despite Mishaps, Planned Review

PHOTO: A Japan Airlines Boeing 787 Dreamliner jet aircraft is surrounded by emergency vehicles while parked at a terminal E gate at Logan International Airport in Boston, Jan. 7, 2013.
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The flying public is safe on Boeing 787 Dreamliners despite several mishaps including fuel leaks and an electrical fire, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said today.

"I would fly on one today," LaHood said at a news conference in Washington this morning.

The Dreamliner has come under fresh scrutiny with the Federal Aviation Administration's ordering a comprehensive review of the plane's design. Federal Aviation Administrator Michael Huerta today said the agency intends to perform a special review of the carbon-fiber plane to ensure that it is safe to fly.

In a rare joint news conference with Boeing, government officials repeatedly assured the flying public of the 787's safety.

"Nothing suggests the airplane is not safe," Huerta said. "We believe this is a safe aircraft. To validate the work during the certification process, we'll work with Boeing to check on systems design and production.

"We want to make sure that the approved quality-control process is in place. We want to see the entire picture and not focus on individual events, to determine the root causes of these events," he said.

The plane will not be grounded by the FAA, and will continue to fly during the review.

Huerta said the review will focus on the Dreamliner's electrical system, including the battery and the power distribution panels, and how electrical and mechanical systems interact with one another.

The latest incident involving the 787 occurred overnight when a 3-foot-long crack appeared in the cockpit window of an All Nippon Airlines 787 flying in Japan.

In addition to that incident, another Dreamliner's electrical power system caught fire earlier this week at the gate at Boston's Logan airport on a Japan Airlines flight.

Six 787s have been delivered domestically, all purchased by United, while there are 50 flying worldwide, including Poland and Chile.

Administrator Huerta said he cannot speculate on a timetable for the review, but it will proceed as expeditiously as possible. United says it has no plans to take its Dreamliners out of service during the review.

"We continue to have complete confidence in the 787 and in the ability of Boeing, with the support of the FAA, to resolve these early operational issues," it said in a statement. "We will support Boeing and the FAA throughout their review."

Boeing says it has "extreme confidence in the 787," and it is 100 percent "safe to fly."

Boeing President Ray Conner emphasized today that the 787 has logged 50,000 flights, carrying more than a million passengers with no injuries and its in-service reliability matches the record of its previous new plane roll-out, the 777.

The 787 is the first entirely new plane built in the United States in 15 years, and was certified to fly by the FAA two years ago.

"This is a newer type of a battery that hasn't been, basically, looked at in any terms of faults," Kevin Hiatt, president and CEO of the Flight Safety Foundation, said, a reference to the electrical fire. "It's a very good battery, and we're not sure what happened there."

The 787 gets better fuel mileage than standard jetliners because it's made of carbon fiber instead of aluminum. Heavier hydraulic controls on the aircraft have also been replaced with light-weight electronics. It's more sophisticated, more powerful and more complicated.

While the Dreamliner has had other minor glitches, the electrical hitch in the auxiliary power unit, or APU, was serious enough to catch the attention of the National Transportation Safety Board, the FAA and aviation experts.

"I'm concerned about the aircraft when it comes to this APU fire and battery situation," Hiatt said. "The rest of the issues are normal teething pains."

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