Boeing’s 787 Faces Scrutiny After Several Reports of Mishaps

United Airlines Boeing 787 Dreamliner
Darren Booth | CNBC
United Airlines Boeing 787 Dreamliner

Boeing's 787 Dreamliner is facing fresh scrutiny after afire broke out on one of the new model passenger planes while it was parked at a gate at Boston's Logan International Airport.

It's the latest of several problems that have been reported with 787s in the past couple of months, and the troubles come after years long delays during the airplane's lengthy development process.

Still, aviation experts say it's too early to say that the reported problems are a sign of serious issues, rather than just the growing pains associated with rolling out a new airplane chock full of fresh technologies.

"You're always going to have glitches with a new airplane.One would prefer they not be fires," said Mike Boyd, chairman of Boyd Group International, a consulting firm in Evergreen, Colo. "But another thing to remember is there's a lot of scrutiny on this airplane (and) a lot of focus on this airplane, so if a door latch doesn't work we're going to hear about it."

The new 787 is groundbreaking in many respects, from its extensive use of composite materials instead of aluminum to its much heavier reliance on electronics. Aviation analysts said that by incorporating so many new innovations, Boeing also has left itself vulnerable to many more potential problems.

"There are a lot more glitches than normal, but there are a lot more new technologies than normal," said Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis with Teal Group. "They've tried an awful lot of new ideas with this plane."

Smoke is seen in the belly of the Japan Airlines 787 Dreamliner that caught fire on Monday. "You're always going to have glitches with a new airplane. One would prefer they not be fires," said Mike Boyd,chairman of Boyd Group International, a consulting firm.

Scott Hamilton, an aviation industry consultant with Leeham and Co., noted that airplane makers have dealt with unexpected issues on new model airplanes going all the back to the propeller era.

He said the big question is whether the fire Monday and the other issues that have been reported are isolated nuisances or more serious flaws. That's something that even investigators may not have yet determined.

"What might be a real concern here is whether or not these are systemic, linked issues," Hamilton said.

Federal investigators said they were looking into the cause of the fire Monday, which was discovered after all the passengers had deplaned.

Boeing spokeswoman Lori Gunter said in an email Monday that the airplane maker was aware of the event and was looking into it, but that no one would be available to comment further.

The fire follows several other issues airlines have reported with the 787.

In December, A United Airlines 787 had to make an emergency landing because of concerns about an electrical panel issue. Later that month,United said it had discovered the same issue with a second airplane.

United also said it would delay using a 787 on its flight from Houston to Lagos, Nigeria, while it continues to work with Boeing on reliability issues. But the airline is operating a 787 on a daily flight from Los Angeles to Tokyo.

Qatar Airlines also said in December that it had grounded one of its 787s because of electrical issues, according to Reuters.

Separately, the Federal Aviation Administration also said in December that it had issued an airworthiness directive requiring airlines to check some new 787s for potential problems after reports of fuel leaks.

One of Boeing's test 787s also experienced a fire during testing in 2010, before the airplane went into service. The airplane maker later traced the cause of the fire to a power panel.

The more recent problems follow a long and difficult development process for the 787.

Boeing delivered its first 787 to All Nippon Airways in the fall of 2011, more than three years after it had initially pledged to get the plane to its Japanese customer. The delays came after the company decided to outsource many major design and manufacturing elements to other companies around the world, in some cases resulting in costly delays.

Furthermore, Boeing got into a spat with the National Labor Relations Board over its decision to assemble some of the 787 jetliners at anew, non-union facility in South Carolina. The aircraft also is assembled at a unionized facility in Everett, Wash. The charge was withdrawn after Boeing and its union came to a new collective bargaining agreement.

Analysts noted that Boeing's major rival, Airbus, faced similar issues with its gigantic A380 rolled out several years ago and also faced some initial problems.

"Any time you have a brand new product, particularly if it's groundbreaking technology, you're going to have heightened scrutiny," Hamilton said.

Aboulafia said that in the long run he expects many of the technologies developed for the new 787 will pay off.

"So far there have been no absolute showstoppers - just a bunch of headaches - and eventually it will be vindicated as a very good new plane," he said.