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Updated Saturday, January 12, 2013 at 11:00 PM

Scrutiny of Boeing’s 787 reflects on regulators, too

By Dominic Gates
Seattle Times aerospace reporter

The sweeping review of 787 Dreamliner safety promised Friday by federal regulators ultimately could restore some luster to the new jet’s troubled reputation, industry analysts said Friday.

And they agreed that the inquiry, focused on the design and manufacturing of the jet’s electrical systems, is better than either no action by regulators or a more draconian step like temporarily grounding the plane.

“I think this is the proper way to do it before things get out of hand and people’s imaginations run wild,” said aviation-industry analyst Adam Pilarski of consulting firm Avitas.

But two former safety regulators said the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) process in initially certifying the 787 also deserves examination, and an industry observer said the inquiry could slow Boeing’s plan to ramp up production of the jet.

Boeing Commercial Airplanes chief Ray Conner stood alongside Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood and Federal Aviation Administration chief Michael Huerta at a high-profile Washington, D.C., news conference as they announced the probe but also declared the plane safe.

The probe was triggered by a series of incidents culminating in a battery fire that broke out in the electronics bay of a parked Japan Airlines 787 in Boston on Monday.

“We are confident about the safety of this aircraft,” said Huerta, “But we are concerned abut these incidents and will conduct the review until we are completely satisfied.”

Conner added, “We welcome any opportunity to further reassure people outside the industry about the integrity of the airplane.”

The recent incidents have shaken public confidence in the Dreamliner, said analyst Pilarski.

So it’s positive for Boeing, he said, that “the government says we are reviewing it, but in the meantime it’s safe to fly.”

Boeing has delivered 50 of the planes and says airlines are making about 150 flights daily.

Jim Hall, former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), said the FAA safety review is “a prudent and good step.” But its details, as well as the resulting report, need to be made public in order to reassure passengers, he said.

“I wouldn’t be surprised to see Congressional hearings to ask the FAA exactly what’s being done,” Hall said.

The FAA’s own role in certifying the airplane’s systems as safe also needs to be scrutinized, he said.

hat task, he said, will fall to the NTSB, which is investigating the Dreamliner fire in Boston.

“The NTSB will have the responsibility to look not just at what caused the incident, but also at the FAA’s regulatory process,” he said.

FAA Administrator Huerta said his agency’s 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.

LaHood said he “would have absolutely no reservation of boarding one of these planes and taking a flight.”

Still, he said, “We will look for the root causes of recent events and do everything we can to ensure these events don’t happen again.”

Conner noted that 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.”

The jet’s multiple redundant safety features ensured passengers were never at risk, he said.

News of the FAA’s planned scrutiny pushed Boeing shares down $1.93 or 2.5 percent to close at $75.16 Friday, continuing a seesaw week driven by 787 concerns.

Analyst Pilarski said the FAA had two worse alternatives to Friday’s step.

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 293 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.

In the short term, however, Aboulafia said the review, will soak up time and engineering resources at Boeing as well as at the FAA.

That, could slow down the planned 787 ramp up, which is supposed to double output of the plane 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 at the assembly sites in Everett 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.

Conner added that the problems shouldn’t be attributed to the Dreamliner program’s extensive outsourcing.

“We have complete confidence in our production system and manufacturing processes as well as the design,” he said.

Former NTSB board member John Goglia, now an air safety consultant, said the FAA needs to prove that now, and will need to do more than go over paperwork and data.

If its review is to be more than a big PR exercise, he said, the agency’s technical staff must go inside the factories of Boeing and its suppliers to see what’s happening there.

“We know some of what’s going on is a quality issue,” said Goglia. “They need to take a good look at the manufacturing process, including the inspections required.”

He said he’s had reports from inside Boeing that inspections are not adequate.

The FAA’ s Huerta insisted the production system will now get intense scrutiny from a team of technical experts that will be based in Seattle.

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.

Dominic Gates: (206) 464-2963 or dgates@seattletimes.com


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