STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Boeing's long-delayed new jet - the 787 - suffered another big setback last month when a fire during a test flight revealed a serious problem with the electrical system. The test planes remain grounded, and the company's production schedule is sliding yet again. As NPR's Wendy Kaufman reports, the company is still trying to come up with the precise fix.
WENDY KAUFMAN: If everything had gone as planned on the 787 program, lots of the new jets would be flying passengers around the world. But not a single airplane has been delivered. More than two and a half years behind schedule, the plane Boeing calls the Dreamliner is still being tested. Flight tests are supposed to validate systems and reveal problems, but a flight on a Tuesday afternoon in November was far from ordinary.
Mr. JON OSTROWER: The first indication the pilot had that anything was actually going wrong on the airplane was a fire-indication warning, which popped up right in front of him.
KAUFMAN: Jon Ostrower, a well-connected and closely followed aviation writer, explains the jet was on final approach when stray debris inside an electrical panel caused a short and then a fire.
Mr. OSTROWER: What then happened was described as a cascading series of failures.
KAUFMAN: The fire self-extinguished within 30 seconds. But according to Boeing, the plane lost primary electrical power. The system to distribute power - to everything from cockpit displays to microwave ovens - went haywire. While the pilots never lost control of the plane and it landed safely, Ostrower says...
Mr. OSTROWER: This fire exposed a fundamental weakness in the systems architecture of this airplane.
KAUFMAN: It's just the latest in a long series of problems, says Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with the Teal Group.
Mr. RICHARD ABOULAFIA (Analyst, Teal Group): There are three things that make this aircraft unique: one, composite materials - they found all kinds of problems working with composite materials; two, global supply and design chain -and of course, they've had all kinds of problems; and the third is more electric aircraft and - well, turns out they've discovered issues with that part of the aircraft's pioneering design as well.
KAUFMAN: So how do they fix it? Boeing plans to rework the software for the power-distribution system, but the company isn't offering details or even an estimate on how long that will take. Ostrower and others suggest the fix could take four to six months.
Mr. OSTROWER: When you start unraveling software in such an integrated system -where one part of the airplane depends on another part of the airplane, which depends on another part of the airplane - you get a bit of a domino effect, in terms of not being able to just change one thing in isolation.
KAUFMAN: Another issue is raised by Stan Sorscher of SPEEA, the engineer and technical workers union. He points to extensive outsourcing of the 787, and says it will be harder for Boeing to make changes on this jet than it would've been on its earlier airplane programs.
Mr. STAN SORSCHER (SPEEA): The problem-solving culture is much weaker. It's not so strong. There aren't teams. The suppliers own the designs. And when it comes time to develop a solution and implement it, Boeing simply doesn't have the same authority to say, this is how we're going to proceed.
KAUFMAN: Suppliers could balk. They could demand additional payments from Boeing. Meanwhile, airline customers who ordered the new jet are growing increasingly restless.
On Monday, a top official for Air India said the airline will seek $840 million in compensation from Boeing. And recent reports say another carrier - China Eastern - intends to cancel all its 787 orders.
Still, about 850 orders for the new model remain on Boeing's books. And the company says it continues to believe the 787 is a great airplane that will deliver outstanding value.
Wendy Kaufman, NPR News, Seattle.
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