While most APU fires which cause minor damage don't usually merit much in the way of attention by either the news media or the NTSB, this event was different. The NTSB launched an investigation that included representatives from Boeing, FAA, Japan Airlines, and the Japan Transport Safety Board. This kind of involvement by multiple agencies usually happens for either accidents or very serious incidents. This was certainly not an accident as defined by the NTSB, but the NTSB's reaction implies that this is being considered to be a serious event, very likely for at least a couple of reasons:
- The 787 had a number of prior incidents since entering passenger service last year, including an electrical problem that led to an emergency landing of a United 787 in New Orleans in December 2012, just a month after United began flying this aircraft model.
- The 787 had a number of development issues that delayed commercial flights for several years.
This fire very likely heightened public attention for the 787 and led to a couple of minor incidents getting a higher than usual amount of national and international media attention. On January 8th, the day after the APU fire at Boston, another Japan Airlines 787, also at Boston, had a minor fuel problem that delayed a flight. About 40 gallons of fuel leaked from the aircraft. This leak was from a vent designed to release fuel rather than from a broken fuel line or some other system malfunction. The plane departed for Japan later that day.
The following day, on Janury 9th, ANA airlines in Japan, which was the first airline to operate the 787, cancelled a flight after the crew received an error message concerning the braking system. These last two events are so minor that the airlines are not required to report them to the FAA, NTSB, or similar civil aviation authorities in other countries.
Why is this happening to the 787?
Boeing's development of the 787 was different in two significant ways from that were a significant departure from previous large passenger jets. The first difference was the extensive use of composite materials for major components of the aircraft structure, and the second was the extensive use of contractors to design and build major aircraft systems, work that previously had been by Boeing.
Neither of these facts explain why these incidents have occurred. While many of the incidents that have occurred have involved the 787 fuel and electrical systems, there is nothing to directly several recent 787 incidents, including the following:
- An electrical problem that forced the December 2012 emergency landing, along with a related electrical problem found later in another United 787.
- A grounding of a Qatar 787, also in December 2012, after finding a similar electrical problem.
- A July 2012 engine failure during a taxi test of newly manufactured 787
- A December FAA Airworthiness Directive (AD 2012-24-07) requiring 787 operators to inspect part of the engine fuel system for possible improper installations.
What does this mean for passengers?
Unless the NTSB, FAA, Boeing, or the current 787 operators find something significant that may affect the safety of the 787, the recent events, however dramatic, are not a cause for concern. The 787 is a new aircraft model that currently has fewer than 50 aircraft in service, with over a third of the aircraft being delivered only in the past three months, and with six of the eight operators having fewer than six months experience flying this model. The first commercial flight was in October 2011, and Japan Airlines only began flying the aircraft in April 2012.
The recent NTSB investigation may have been launched in part because it is a new model and because there may be useful insights gained from thoroughly investigating incidents such as the Boston APU fire. As operators around the world gain more operational experience with the 787, there will certainly be more incidents. However, unless several of these incidents have one or more causes that are both related and unexpected, there would be real reason to suspect that the 787 has some sort of issue that is exposing passengers and crews to excessive safety risks.
Is it safe to fly on the 787?
If you define safety as an acceptable risk, then the 787 is safe to fly because there is nothing that currently indicates that the 787 has a much greater likelihood of experiencing safety-related problems compared to other large jet airliners. However, that answer may change as a result of the current NTSB investigation or after the airlines flying the 787 gain greater operational experience.