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Dreamliner mishaps a nightmare for Boeing

Noel Hulsman

The dream is turning into a nightmare for Boeing. Less than two years into its existence, and before 95 per cent of the planes ordered have been delivered, the Dreamliner is ruining a lot of sleep. Okay, the dream puns stop here.

This week alone saw three separate incidents grounding the $207-million jet, causing the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration to order a review of all critical systems on the aircraft; a rare step to take once a plane has already been certified.

For Boeing, it’s just the latest in a long line of headaches, stemming back to its development, which was delayed seven times due to engineering issues, setting it three years behind schedule and resulting in US$32 billion in additional costs.

By those standards, this week’s misadventures barely warrant mention. Still, the optics are anything positive, which could explain why Boeing's stock was down more than 2.5 per cent to $75.11 shortly after the open on Friday.

The difficulties started on Monday in Boston when a battery pack caught fire on Japan Airlines (JAL) 787 after the passengers and crew had left the plane. The flames took firefighters 40 minutes to put out. It’s unclear whether the blaze was caused by improperly installed wires or due to an electrical failure.

No sooner had the investigation begun on that incident, when another JAL Dreamliner in Boston ran into trouble. The very next day a jet bound for Tokyo dumped 150 litres of fuel on the runway as it was taxiing towards takeoff. Airline officials said the leak was caused when one of the fuel valves was inadvertently left open.

On Wednesday, Japan’s All Nippon Airways grounded a domestic Dreamliner flight after a computer-glitch beset the breaking system. And then to wrap the week up, so far at least, another ANA Dreamliner developed a crack in the cockpit windshield on Friday one hour into a flight from Tokyo to Matsuyama in western Japan. While the fissure appeared only on the outermost fifth layer of the windshield and didn’t impact the flight, it did delay the return trip, and contributed yet another headline to what’s become a mounting PR disaster. More importantly, it added another line item to the review the F.A.A. has now promised to carry out.

With 799 of the ordered 848 Dreamliners still to be delivered, there is much riding on that review. The primary appeal of the plane is that it’s the world’s first carbon-composite passenger jet and that it relies on electrical signals to power on-board functions, rather than much-heavier pneumatic systems. The result is a much lighter, more fuel-efficient aircraft, a critical attribute in an era of sky-high fuel costs.