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Fuel leak delays Dreamliner Tokyo flight at Logan

A Japan Airlines flight was temporarily grounded Tuesday after spilling 40 gallons of fuel while awaiting takeoff, officials said, marking the second straight day one of the $207 million Boeing 787 Dream­liners suffered a technical failure or flare-up at Logan Airport.

Officials called the inadvertent fuel spill concerning but considerably less critical than the small fire that hit a different Dreamliner Monday at Logan. But before the plane could be inspected and cleared to depart Tuesday after the fuel spill, it provided an unusual sight and an embarrassing one for Boeing and the airline: Two of the Dreamliners, out of a worldwide Japan Airlines fleet of seven, on the ground at Logan, temporarily out of service.

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The first of Boeing’s high-tech 787 Dreamliners entered service in late 2011 after a ­series of production delays, and the plane has since been hampered by high-profile problems. On Dec. 5, the Federal Aviation Administration ordered inspections of all 36 Dreamliners in service at the time after receiving reports of fuel leaks on two aircraft operated by foreign airlines. That led to discovery of incorrectly assembled fuel couplings that could result in fuel leaks and lead to loss of power or fire, according to the FAA, though the issues at Logan ­appeared to be unrelated.

Normally, Boston sees one Dreamliner a day, during the turnaround between the plane’s midmorning arrival from Tokyo and its noon departure as ­Logan’s sole nonstop flight to Asia. But in an area known as North Cargo, adjacent to Terminal E, inspectors were still scrutinizing the Dreamliner that caught fire Monday when its fuel-­spilling sibling passed by on the way back to the gate, each plane offset by the flashing lights of Massport Fire Rescue.

Massport’s aviation director, Edward C. Freni, called it an unfortunate coincidence that would not shake the faith of airport executives in the midsized Dreamliner, a fuel-efficient aircraft able to fly longer routes normally plied by larger, heavier planes too big for Logan’s runways.

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Monday’s fire “was a whole different situation,” Freni said, explaining that Tuesday’s fuel spill was less serious: The plane had not leaked fuel but spilled it through a vent designed for fuel release, albeit not normal when the aircraft is approaching the runway for takeoff. “This happens, and it has happened to different airplanes that have operated in and out of our airport,” he said.

A pilot queuing behind the Japan Airlines Dreamliner ­noticed the spill from that plane’s left side and radioed controllers about 12:25 p.m., Massport officials said.

The plane sat for an hour while emergency responders cleaned the spill before it could reach drains leading to the ocean, Freni said. The plane then returned to the gate so passengers could deplane during evaluation and testing of the aircraft by Japan Airlines mechanics, who cleared it by about 3 p.m., Freni said.

A Japan Airlines spokeswoman acknowledged a report of “fuel system trouble” but did not specify the cause. Freni said fuel vents sometimes leach fuel when it is being transferred from one tank to another or if a tank gets overfilled, but Massport did not know the precise cause. The 40 gallons represented less than 1 percent of the plane’s capacity.

Responding to Monday’s fire, Boeing said it is investigating Dreamliner electrical issues after incidents involving at least four aircraft. A United Airlines flight from Houston to Newark was diverted to New Orleans last month after experiencing a midflight electrical problem, and Qatar Airways later said it grounded a Dreamliner for the same reason. United took ­another jet out of service to ­replace a power panel and generator, while a power panel on an aircraft set to be delivered to Qatar Airways was replaced following a test flight.

The Wall Street Journal ­reported Tuesday that United Airlines found an improperly installed bundle of wires in one of its Dreamliners during an inspec­tion following Monday’s fire at Logan. The wires connect to the battery used to start the auxiliary power unit, the same equipment that caught fire in Boston.

United confirmed that the airline inspected all six of its Dreamliners overnight after Monday’s Japan Airlines incident but would not comment on the results. None of the planes is out of service.

“We continue to work closely with Boeing on the reliability of our 787s,” said a United spokeswoman, Mary Ryan.

Although issues should be expected to arise on a new aircraft that incorporates considerable technological and design advances, it is unsettling to see so many issues crop up in a row, said Kevin Hiatt, a former airline pilot and chief executive of the Flight Safety Foundation, an aviation-safety nonprofit.

But the Dreamliner’s reported problems do not make it dangerous, Hiatt said, given built-in safety redundancies. “If I were to go out to an airport tomorrow and get on a 787, I would go ahead and do that,” he said.

The National Transportation Safety Board is continuing to review the aircraft that caught fire Monday before returning it to Japan Airlines, the board said Tuesday. The board sent three investigators to Boston, where they were joined by representatives of the FAA and Boeing as well as the Japan Transport Safety Board.

Freni expressed confidence in the Dreamliner, which could open Massachusetts to other distant nonstop locales.

“This is a great airplane, and this is a game-changer for ­Logan Airport,” he said. “We’re confident that Boeing will make sure that [Monday’s] incident is handled property and taken care of.”

That was shortly before 3:30 p.m., when an announcement called for passengers to return to the gate for boarding. The plane went wheels-up at 4:03 p.m., after another delay, this one not technical: One of the passengers misplaced a wallet.

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at emoskowitz@globe.com.
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