Boeing Dreamliner troubles spook airlines, passengers


Posted at Jan 12 2013 09:48 AM | Updated as of Jan 12 2013 05:48 PM

TOKYO - Recent problems with Boeing 787 Dreamliner jets have dealt a serious blow to Japan Airlines Co. and All Nippon Airways Co., which are relying on the sophisticated aircraft to boost their business.

ANA became the world's first airline to deploy the Dreamliner while JAL, which went public again last year after completing its rehabilitation, also expected much from the fuel-efficient plane that made its debut with great fanfare.

On Tuesday, a JAL Dreamliner was forced to return to the terminal at Boston's Logan International Airport after a fuel leak was found just before takeoff. The plane leaked as much as 150 liters of fuel.

A Japan Airlines (JAL) Boeing Co's 787 plane is seen at New Tokyo international airport in Narita Janauary 9, 2013. Photo by Shohei Miyano, Reuters

Passengers who later arrived at Narita International Airport near Tokyo on the plane voiced concern, with some complaining the leaked fuel could have caught fire, stirring fears travelers could avoid flying on Dreamliners.

The incident followed an electrical fire on another JAL Dreamliner at Logan airport the previous day that was linked to a battery connected to an auxiliary power unit.

While Boeing Co. has downplayed the problems, maintaining it is absolutely sure the plane is safe, the incidents have received wide media coverage in the United States.

When ANA became the first carrier to put the Dreamliner into regular commercial service in November 2011, President Shinichiro Ito was all smiles, saying, "We were involved in the development of the plane and worked so hard until it was finally completed."

Lightweight carbon fiber composites are used extensively on the medium-sized 787 and fuel-efficient engines have been developed for it. The plane can operate on long-distance routes connecting Japan with the United States and Europe on which larger airliners are usually deployed.

Around 35 percent of ANA's Dreamliner, including its main wings, was produced with the participation of Japanese manufacturers.

Problems during development delayed delivery of the first Dreamliner to ANA by over three years and there have been a number of incidents since.

An ANA plane bound for Haneda airport in Tokyo was found to have leaked fuel in October while taxiing at Yamaguchi Ube Airport in western Japan. In December, a United Airlines Dreamliner made an emergency landing in the United States after its electrical system malfunctioned.

JAL and ANA are prioritizing medium- and long-distance flights that do not compete with the short-distance services of low-cost carriers, making the 787 planes of vital importance. JAL aims to deploy 45 Dreamliners and ANA 66.

"The 787 has made it possible to fly on overseas routes that would have been unprofitable in the past," an ANA executive said. In fact, most new routes to the United States and Europe that the two Japanese airlines opened last year use the Dreamliner.

JAL's business strategy could falter if U.S. aviation authorities order Boeing to review the plane's design, delaying delivery of the jets.

"Particularly worrisome is the fact that problems have arisen with electrical systems, which the 787 is more reliant on compared with conventional aircraft," said Kazuki Sugiura, an aviation analyst. "It is essential to do everything to identify the causes of the problems and immediately inspect all 787 planes when something is amiss."