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Safety concerns but 787 Dreamliner is technological leap

A Boeing 787 Dreamliner operated by United Airlines takes off at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) on January 9, 2013 in Los Angeles, California.

Boeing has been in the news a lot lately. There have been safety issues with its new 787 Dreamliner. Boeing’s most advanced plane has been plagued by computer glitches, fuel leaks and a fire. You’d think with all these highly publicized setbacks, Boeing’s stock would be taking a big hit, but that’s not the case.

Boeing unveiled its 787 Dreamliner in 2007, and it’s not just a new commercial jet, it’s an entirely new type of aircraft. You can see some of the changes just by looking at the plane. It has a more aerodynamic shape and the body is made out of carbon composite material.

The one thing that you can’t see is the bleedless electrical system inside the plane. Mike Sinnett, the chief project engineer for the Dreamliner, explained in a conference call that in a conventional electric system, high pressure air from the engine is used to power on board systems. But the bleedless system uses electric power.

“This is what leads us to the fuel burn improvements” said Sinnett.

In order to achieve those improvements -- 20 percent more fuel efficiency -- the new system relies on lithium ion batteries. They were allowed by the Federal Aviation Administration back in 2007. On Monday, one of those batteries caught fire on a Dreamliner owned by Japan Airlines.

Robert Mann Jr., president of the airline consulting firm R.W. Mann, says the recent fire has raised questions:

“Are the manufacturers in effect co-opting the regulator here? Is the regulator satisfied with the special condition that was granted in 2007? Will the National Transportation Safety Board decide that maybe that wasn’t such a great idea?”

Boeing will have to wait until the investigation of the fire is complete before any decision about new regulation is made. This, says Mann, is a necessary part of innovation in the airline industry. Boeing and its competitors will learn from the success of the Dreamliner.

“But they also learn from each other’s not quite successes. I won’t call them failures but I’ll call them not quite success,” says Mann.

No one was on board when the battery exploded, and overall Boeing has a good safety record. But lithium batteries have been suspected of causing crashes in two Boeing cargo planes, one of which resulted in the death of two crew members.

So far,  the Dreamliner’s safety issues have not deterred customers. Boeing delivered 100 Dreamliners and they have approximately 800 on order. No airplane in history has reached that number of orders as quickly.

About the author

David Weinberg is a general assignment reporter at Marketplace.

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