By Harry Suhartono
SINGAPORE (Reuters) - About 55 of Boeing Co's 787 Dreamliner jets could have a recently discovered flaw in the fuselage, the company said on Wednesday, while reiterating that the world's first carbon-plastic passenger plane is safe to fly.
Boeing earlier this month reported signs of "delamination" on a support structure in the rear fuselage, the latest in a series of glitches in developing the revolutionary jet.
The company is examining a backlog of assembled Dreamliners to see whether they show similar signs of stress, which it has blamed on incorrect "shimming" -- a process plane makers use to fill tiny gaps when aircraft are built.
"All the airplanes that were built up to plane 55 have the potential for the shimming issue," James Albaugh, chief executive officer of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, told reporters during a media roundtable in Singapore.
Albaugh said the problem was "very fixable."
"We are in the process of fixing the airplanes that are in the (production) flow," he said. "There is no safety or flight issue on the airplanes that we have delivered."
Although composite parts have been in use for years, the 787 is the first airliner built mainly out of the new materials, which help airlines to save fuel by reducing aircraft weight.
Albaugh said the inspections might affect delivery of the aircraft to customers in the short term, but the company still expects to meet its target for this year.
The first six aircraft produced are generally test models.
Analysts have said the discovery of the flaw some nine weeks after the aircraft entered service has raised questions over whether Boeing can meet what many already saw as an ambitious plan to raise output to 10 a month by the end of 2013 from 2.5 now.
Sticking to the plans, Boeing expects to boost monthly output to 3.5 in the second quarter and to five by year-end.
DECISION ON 787 STRETCH BY YEAR-END
Boeing has so far delivered five of the aircraft to Japan's All Nippon Airways, which put the plane into regular passenger service starting on December 1. Due to production problems, that was three years later than originally planned.
ANA said Boeing had contacted the airline to say there were no safety issues involved in shimming and to give a general indication of the inspection procedure.
Boeing has promised to deliver a detailed procedure, which ANA expects to get soon. Meanwhile, all of its five Dreamliners are operating normally, the airline said.
Japan Airlines has already said it no longer expected its first Dreamliner by the end of February as a result of the manufacturing glitch.
The 787 problem comes as Boeing rival Airbus investigates the cause of cracks in part of the wings of its A380 superjumbo. It also insists its jets are safe.
Chief Executive Officer Tom Enders pledged last week that Airbus would apply lessons from the A380 glitches to the development of the A350, which is the European company's carbon-composite answer to the 787 Dreamliner.
Boeing will decide whether to go ahead with plans to produce a stretched, or longer, version of the 787 Dreamliner by the end of this year, Albaugh said.
Most aircraft analysts expected Boeing to push ahead with the 787-10, which would carry around 320 people, 40 more than the longest 787 version currently on offer, the 787-9.
The 787 and A350 address the mid-sized segment of the market, which is expected to number several thousand aircraft in coming decades as airlines renew fleets to save fuel and open up new routes.
Airbus and Boeing are also battling to maintain a roughly equal share of the single-aisle aircraft segment, the industry's largest by volume, after updating their best-selling 150-seat jets with new engines.
Airbus took the lead last year with strong sales of its A320neo, but Boeing is redressing the balance with its 737 MAX.
"We have over 1,100 commitments, and our goal this year is to turn all of those into firm orders," Albaugh told reporters, adding that Boeing aimed for a couple of thousand firm orders by the time the updated aircraft enters service in 2017.
"If there really is a softening in the economy, you could see some deferrals, you could see some people cancelling and you could see fewer orders," Albaugh said.
Underlining concerns about the economy, Singapore Airlines said on Wednesday that it was cutting cargo capacity by 20 percent because of weak demand and high fuel prices.
(Additional reporting by Tim Hepher; Editing by Anshuman Daga and Lisa Von Ahn)