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Harsh spotlight placed on Boeing 787 program

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In the blink of an eye, the Boeing 787 program is now the subject of two major inquiries.

The US National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the fire on a parked Japan Airlines 787 at Boston Logan Airport while the US FAA is conducting a “comprehensive review” of the program focusing on Boeing’s manufacturing process and the aircraft’s electrical systems.

Not exactly a good week for Boeing.

FAA administrator Michael Huerta, US transportation secretary Ray LaHood and Boeing Commercial Airplanes president and CEO Ray Conner all repeatedly said they believe the 787 is safe to fly and that all aircraft programs go through some bumps when entering service. If that is true, why is the FAA now doing what is sure to be a high-profile “review”—even as the NTSB is already looking into the apparent battery fire on the JAL 787?

I think it simply comes down to not being able to spin a fire aboard an aircraft that, according to on-scene reports, took 40 minutes to put out. It is true that all aircraft programs have issues and that, given the 787’s many backup safety systems (and backups to the backups), there does not appear to be any imminent safety threat. But the 787 had a fire incident during its flight test program and now has had one aboard an in-service aircraft. It’s hard for LaHood and Huerta to ignore that, particularly taking into consideration other 787 incidents and all of the new technology aboard the aircraft.

But the FAA will have to walk a fine line between conducting a thorough investigation and making buyers of one the US’s shiniest exports—the 787—nervous.

For Boeing, this is no time to panic. The company still has wind at its back. It is coming off a near-record orders year and production rates and deliveries are on the rise. Its backlog is more geographically diverse than it has ever been, somewhat shielding the company from regional economic dips. The 737 MAX is selling briskly. And, so far, there does not appear to be any reason to take serious action on the 787, such as grounding aircraft.

As Ray Conner did when standing alongside LaHood and Huerta at the DOT/FAA press conference on the Dreamliner review, it is best right now to smile politely, speak in measured tones and keep producing and delivering 787s.

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