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Dreamliner safety issue in perspective

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The video told the story as it made the rounds on the Internet: An emergency landing forces down a Boeing 787 Dreamliner in Japan. Shaken passengers evacuate via inflatable emergency slides onto an airport runway. Airline officials later bow deeply in apology at a news conference called to discuss the upsetting incident.

These images were not what Chicago-based Boeing Co. had in mind when it staked its future on the innovative new aircraft (list price: $207 million apiece). Much of the plane consists of carbon-composite materials that, because they are lighter than metal, make the Dreamliner fuel-efficient.

Only about 50 Dreamliners have come into service so far. Half of those, based in Japan, were grounded in the wake of incidents that raised safety concerns. The problems culminated in the emergency landing Wednesday, after a battery malfunctioned on an All Nippon Airways jet and released an electrical odor. Late in the day, the Federal Aviation Administration announced that it is grounding U.S.-registered 787s pending proof that the batteries in question are safe.

Taken individually, some of the events aren’t particularly unusual: a cracked windshield, a fuel leak. But the spate of them — a half-dozen in little more than a week — is unusual. So too was a Jan. 7 incident in which a fire broke out on an empty Dreamliner in Boston. "People look at that, and I can understand that it gives them pause," said Boeing spokesman John Dern.

Reliability rates for the 787 are on a par with other aircraft, Dern noted. Airlines that have been flying the 787 were doing safety checks every day. It is worth noting that before any Dreamliners entered service, the aircraft faced a rigorous certification process. Before Wednesday’s FAA order, federal regulators last week had ordered an in-depth safety review. A Qatar Airways official has described the issues as "teething" problems. Some airlines set to introduce the 787 into their fleets in coming years have expressed confidence in it as well.

As of Wednesday, Dern said, no one had canceled any of the hundreds of pending orders. "If the planes weren’t safe, we wouldn’t be delivering them," he said. "The airplane’s safe."

Yes, but: For the passengers contemplating a Dreamliner flight, qualms are only natural.

Here’s a bit of reassuring news. The International Air Transport Association recently reported that there was but one accident for every 5.3 million commercial flights last year. That made 2012 the safest year for global air travel since the dawn of the jet age.

The trade group, whose members account for 84 per cent of the world’s commercial air traffic, broke out its calculator to celebrate the milestone. It reported that, at the current level of air safety, a passenger would have to take a flight every day for 14,000 years before having an accident. (But imagine the frequent flier points.)

There are no absolute guarantees that all air travel is always safe — that your flight is safe. Still, we suspect that in spite of the legitimate concerns under investigation, the Dreamliner will prove to be a safe way to get from here to there — and because of its cutting-edge design, perhaps even safer than many of the other, almost unfailingly safe commercial aircraft whose vapor trails encircle the globe every hour of every day.

Living in Boeing’s hometown, beside one of the world’s busiest airports, everyone in metropolitan Chicago should hope the 787’s "teething" pains quickly give way to the smooth and safe service that air travelers have a right to expect.

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