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Boeing in damage-control mode after high-profile 787 problems

LOS ANGELES CA - JANUARY 9:  A Boeing 787 Dreamliner operated by United Airlines takes off Los Angeles International

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 9: A Boeing 787 Dreamliner operated by United Airlines takes off at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) on January 9, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. Two separate 787 jets operated by Japan Airlines (JAL) experienced mechanical problems in Boston this week. A fuel leak during takeoff forced one to return to the terminal the day after a fire erupted aboard a different Dreamliner parked at a gate shortly after landing. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

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Updated: February 11, 2013 7:27AM

At a time when it should be focused on anticipated expanded deliveries of its new next generation 787 Dreamliner airplane, Chicago-based Boeing Co. instead finds itself defending the plane after high-profile problems this week.

“We continue to be very confident in the airplane,” Mike Sinnett, Boeing vice president and 787 chief project engineer, said during a damage-control conference call Wednesday. “Like any brand-new airplane program, the first year or two years in service, there are issues that we have to work through.”

The 787’s performance is consistent with that of the 777 in terms of reliability, maintainability and airplane availability, he said, adding, “The performance of both of these airplanes . . . has been better than any other large wide-bodies that were introduced into the world’s fleets. . . . Their performance has been best in class.”

Problems with 787 planes this week included a battery catching fire Monday on a Japan Airlines 787 after passengers had deplaned, which promptied ongoing investigations by the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board. On Tuesday, a 7 Japan Airlines 787 had a fuel leak, and on Wednesday, an All Nippon Airways 787 had a brake problem.

In December, a United Airlines 787 flight flying from Houston to Newark, N.J., had to divert to New Orleans because of an electrical problem with a power distribution panel, and Qatar Airways grounded one of its 787s because of the same issue.

Regarding this week’s battery fire, Sinnett said Boeing had no plans to drop its use of the lithium ion battery in the plane. He said the battery has multiple levels of protection in place to assure that a failure in the battery does not put the airplane at risk. Those protections include systems designed to handle a fire during flight, allowing the plane to land safely, he said.

“We have over a million hours of safe operation of these battery cells in flight, and we continue to be very confident in the battery technology and in the system implementation of that technology,” Sinnett said.

The aerospace giant should be concerned about mitigating blows to the plane’s image, said Richard Aboulafia, vice president of the aerospace and defense consulting firm Teal Group. The best way to do that, he said: “Solve the problem.”

Boeing said it had no cancellations of 787 orders because of the problems. But that could change, Aboulafia warned.

“Right now people are willing to wait and are going to keep faith in the plane,” he said. “But if you get to a point where passengers begin to get concerned and you begin to lose some of the attraction of the aircraft, then you could see for the first time cancellations” because of the problems

“You could see people lose faith in the product itself,” he said.

Boeing has received orders for 848 of the planes and delivered 49.

Airlines that purchase the planes have cause to be concerned about their own image, said Jan Slater, dean of the College of Media at the University of Illinois, who does research on building brand relationships and brand and media strategy.

“Their brand is on the line” also, she said of airlines. “If there’s problems with the planes, that comes back to haunt the airlines.”

Boeing has a strong brand name, and how quickly it addresses the problems will be important, she said.

Sinnett said the 787 has gotten “very positive feedback from its customers and their customers.”

He said similar to the 777 during its first 15 months, the 787 airplanes that have been delivered are “in the high 90 percents” on how often the planes get out of their gates within 15 minutes of their scheduled departure time with an absence of technical issues.

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