More turbulence for Dreamliner

Chicago-based Boeing Co. has "extreme confidence" in the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, and the plane is "absolutely 100 percent safe to fly," Mike Sinnett, the chief project engineer for the 787 said during a news conference Wednesday.

The public statements come on the third day in a row that different Boeing 787s have had high-profile problems, including an electrical battery fire on Monday, a fuel leak on Tuesday and a problem with brakes on Wednesday.

"Clearly there are issues," Sinnett said, adding that he won't be happy until the 787 is 100 percent reliable. However, all new planes have such "teething pains," and the 787 problems are similar to incidents experienced when the Boeing 777 went into service, he said.

"This is par for the course for any new airplane program ... just like any new airplane program we work through those issues and move on," he said. "There are no metrics that are screaming at me that we have a problem."

Aviation experts, industry analysts and some Boeing customers have echoed that, saying all new aircraft have such problems for the first year or two and that such glitches don't make flying in a 787 unsafe.

The first 787 Dreamliner was delivered 15 months ago -- more than three years late because of design and production delays -- to a Japanese airline. There are now 50 Dreamliners in service with various airlines around the world.

Chicago-based United Airlines so far has six 787s. Since early November, the airline has temporarily been flying a 787 route between Chicago O'Hare and Houston, as well as on other domestic routes. The Chicago route is scheduled to end March 29, when United will use the 787s on international routes.

LOT Polish Airlines will operate the first regular 787 route out of O'Hare -- to Warsaw -- starting with an inaugural flight scheduled for next week.

The Dreamliner is touted as offering greater passenger comforts and better fuel efficiency than any other airplane in its class, largely due to far more use of light composite materials rather than metals.

However, it has seen its share of problems, including a rash of incidents recently.

Japan's All Nippon Airways said Wednesday 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.

Last month, the Federal Aviation Administration ordered inspections on 787s for a problem with fuel leaks.

In a news conference Wednesday dominated by technical discussions of the 787's electrical systems and batteries, Sinnett emphasized the "redundancies" or backup protections built into the aircraft's electrical systems. For example, the plane has six power generators but can fly with just one functioning, he said.

The 787 more heavily relies on electrical components than any other aircraft, in an effort to shed the weight of traditional pneumatic systems and improve fuel efficiency, he said.

Overall, the plane is meeting goals for fuel efficiency and passenger comfort, Sinnett said. "We're very, very happy with how the airplane is performing," he said.

Asian customers rallied behind the Boeing, saying such 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.

Reuters contributed

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