Fire Raises More Questions About Boeing's New 787

Federal officials along with investigators from Boeing are trying to determine what caused a fire to break out on a new 787 jet parked at the Boston airport Monday. The fire, in an auxiliary power unit, is just the latest in a string of electrical systems problems on Boeing's flagship airplane.

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And some other news. Federal officials along and investigators from Boeing are trying to determine exactly what caused a fire on a brand new 787 Dreamliner passenger jet parked at the Boston's Logan Airport yesterday.

As NPR's Wendy Kaufman reports, the fire, is the latest in a string of electrical systems problems on Boeing's flagship airliner.

WENDY KAUFMAN, BYLINE: The Japan Airlines jet carrying about 185 people had just landed after a long flight from Tokyo. Passengers hadn't noticed anything out of the ordinary and they'd all gotten off the plane safely. But a few minutes later, cleaning crews and a mechanic encountered smoke onboard the jet.

Matt Brelis of Massport, which operates the airport, says firefighters responded quickly.

MATT BRELIS: They used thermal imaging to locate a heat source and found a fire in a compartment bay in the belly of the aircraft.

Boeing has not yet provided any details about the fire but Massport officials said the fire began in a battery that was part of an auxiliary power unit. The APU is typically used only when a plane is on the ground and its engines turned off. So, it seems unlikely that the fire began in flight.

KAUFMAN: Still, the incident, once again, raises questions about the electrical systems on the 787 jet. Aviation analyst Scott Hamilton.

SCOTT HAMILTON: Not that long ago, United Airlines had an emergency landing with the 787 that was traced to down to a generator and instrumentation problem. A delivery flight of a Qatar 787 was put down early in London for the same reason.

KAUFMAN: Indeed, back in 2010, one of the aircraft's test flights ended with an onboard fire. A piece of debris inside an electrical control panel caused a short, then a fire, and then the plane lost primary electrical power. The aircraft program that was already years late and well over budget had to ground its test fleet for several weeks.

Last month, yet another problem emerged. The FAA ordered inspections of all the 787s in service after it received reports of fuel leaks on two of the aircraft.

Richard Aboulafia, another industry analyst, notes that the 787 is an innovative airplane. Aside from the use of new composite materials, its electrical systems are more sophisticated and complex than in older Boeing models.

RICHARD ABOULAFIA: They're bringing a lot of new big and small technologies to market with this plane, and so you're going to continue to see glitches like these.

KAUFMAN: Aboulafia says he sees no reason to doubt the overall integrity of the 787 and he suspects the cause of yesterday's fire will be relatively easy to address. Nonetheless, he says...

ABOULAFIA: The problem is, of course, at some point it becomes a serious perception problem, where customer perception acquires a life of its own and people go from riding the buzz of a new jet to avoiding it.

KAUFMAN: So far, Boeing has delivered 50 787s. All but half a dozen have gone to foreign airlines. United is the only domestic carrier that has them. Aboulafia notes that thus far, no major airline has cancelled orders for the 787 because of design or mechanical problems. Indeed, the airplane maker currently has about 800 orders on its books for the plane it calls the Dreamliner.

Wendy Kaufman, NPR News.

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