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Originally published March 19, 2014 at 10:26 AM | Page modified March 20, 2014 at 2:34 PM

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FAA report finds 787 is safe, faults supply-chain oversight

The review found the Dreamliner is safe, meets design standards and is about as reliable as other Boeing jetliners were after being introduced. The FAA issued seven recommendations, four for Boeing and three for itself, to improve the way new aircraft design and manufacturing is overseen.

Seattle Times aerospace reporter

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A review of the critical systems on Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner ordered immediately after two serious 787 battery failures in January last year has concluded that the jet is safe, meets design standards and is about as reliable as other Boeing jetliners were after being introduced, according to a final report published Wednesday.

The review, conducted by Federal Aviation Administration and Boeing technical experts, also validates the oversight role played by the regulatory agency, concluding that “the FAA had effective processes in place to identify and correct issues.”

However, the technical team also found that both the FAA and Boeing didn’t exercise enough quality control over its globally dispersed network of subcontractors during the 787’s development. It recommended a series of actions at both Boeing and the federal agency to tighten that control.

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said his agency has already moved to implement the recommendations.

“After the first Boeing 787 battery incident last year, I called for a comprehensive review of the entire design, manufacture and assembly process for the aircraft as well as a critical look at our own oversight,” said Huerta. “The review team identified some problems with the manufacturing process and the way we oversee it, and we are moving quickly to address those problems.”

Boeing welcomed the report’s conclusions.

“The review’s findings validate the integrity of the airplane’s design and confirm the strength of the processes used to identify and correct issues that emerged before and after the airplane’s certification,” the company said in a statement.

The changes recommended for Boeing focus on improving the flow of information, standards and expectations between the company and its suppliers, and maturing the process of technical-milestone checks during the airplane-development process.

“Boeing has already taken significant steps to implement these recommendations,” the company said.

Even after the overheated-battery issue of 2013 was addressed, the 787 continued to be plagued with a series of problems, the most recent of which was the discovery of hairline cracks inside the wings of a batch of 43 Dreamliners.

So another finding that is very positive for Boeing is the review’s conclusion — after a study of in-service data — that the 787’s reliability is “equal to or better than” the performance of Boeing’s previous airplane, the 777, at the same stage of its development.

The list of issues raised by the review team mostly relate to the way the 787’s heavily outsourced 787 supply chain was managed.

“In some cases complete and accurate design requirements did not flow down from Boeing to its primary supplier and then to the involved subtier suppliers,” the report states, blaming “communication and verification issues along the supply chain.”

The review found that Boeing’s ambiguity in stating what was required of its 787 partners in some cases “led suppliers to incorrectly assume they successfully met all the requirements. However, the actual requirements had not been satisfied.”

One example cited in the report is a how a “poorly executed design-change process” eliminated a design feature intended to prevent installation of a nonimpact-resistant fuel tank access door.

Despite such details, Boeing will be relieved at the report’s larger conclusions, which the FAA said “validate the integrity of the airplane’s design and confirm the strength of the processes used to identify and correct issues.”

The report also declares that “the 787 meets the intended high level of safety expected by the FAA and Boeing.”

“We welcomed the opportunity presented by this joint review,” Ray Conner, Boeing commercial airplanes chief executive, said in a statement. “The findings validate our confidence in both the design of the airplane and the disciplined process used to identify and correct in-service issues as they arise.”

This FAA/Boeing review of the 787’s certification and manufacturing is separate from an ongoing probe by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) into what caused the battery incidents.

The NTSB’s report into those incidents is expected to be made public in the fall.

The FAA/Boeing report was posted Wednesday on the FAA’s website.

The 787 program was beset with manufacturing delays and production issues from the outset that pushed its introduction more than three years behind schedule.

It fell behind in part because the airplane maker turned over more authority to suppliers than it had during development of previous models. The arrangement, designed to cut costs and reduce its risks, caused a series of delays starting in October 2007.

The first battery incident occurred Jan. 7, 2013, in Boston aboard a Japan Airlines plane that had arrived from Tokyo. It emitted fumes and gave off high heat as if it was on fire, according to the NTSB.

While no one was hurt and the plane didn’t suffer significant damage, the NTSB opened an investigation because the aircraft was so new and untested.

Two days later an All Nippon Airways 787 made an emergency landing at Takamatsu Airport in southern Japan after another lithium-ion battery overheated and fumes entered the cabin.

The jet was grounded for three months until Boeing’s fix was approved.

Boeing had delivered 122 of the planes through February 2014, according to the company’s website. Airlines have ordered a total of 1,031 of the planes.

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