The reason Boeing’s 787 needs a formal review

imagesSo I went back and forth all weekend trying to make my mind up about whether or not this Boeing 787 tempest was worth some discussion or no.

For those who missed it, the FAA on Friday announced it was going to conduct “a comprehensive review” of the Boeing 787 systems and a “sweeping evaluation of the way Boeing designs, manufactures and assembles the aircraft.”

In aviation circles, this is a big deal, and something that doesn’t happen very often. It illustrates just how many problems have emerged with the new airplane recently; as of Friday, Reuters said there had been approximately 10 events in the span of six weeks. The list from last week, which I’ve more-or-less cut-and-pasted from two L.A. Times stories and a story from the New York Times, looked like this:

  • A smoldering battery fire related to the auxiliary power unit, discovered Dec. 7 on the underbelly of a 787 operated by Japan Airlines.
  • On the same day, a United Airlines Dreamliner flight from Houston to Newark, N.J., was diverted to New Orleans after an electrical problem emerged mid-flight. Qatar Airways, which had accepted delivery of a Dreamliner a month earlier, grounded the aircraft for the same problem that United experienced.
  • Last Friday a crack on the cockpit windscreen on an All Nippon Airways 787 was discovered. The plane landed safety but its return trip to Tokyo was canceled.
  • On the same day, oil was discovered leaking from an engine on another All Nippon Airways 787.
  • Last Wednesday, All Nippon cancelled a 787 flight after a computer mistakenly showed problems with the aircraft’s brakes.
  • Last Tuesday, a fuel leak forced a 787 operated by Japan Airlines to return to its gate minutes before taking off from Boston.

Quite the list, no doubt. But by Sunday night I finally decided it wasn’t worth adding my two cents. My thinking was this: Teething problems on a new airplane are not new, particularly on one which has introduced, as the 787 has, so many new technologies. I read remarks from Boeing engineers who said the 747 went through the same sort of process when it was introduced, and thought to myself, OK, they’ll sort it out, and the FAA review is just good safety management.

And then yesterday, Monday, yet another problem emerged on a Japan Airlines 787: An inspection Sunday revealed that the same 787 which leaked fuel in Boston more than a week ago had spilled another 100 litres of Jet A at Narita Airport outside of Tokyo.

That event snapped me awake and made me decide something important was at stake and needs discussion, and I’m not talking about last week’s problems or the FAA review, per se.

In my time as a journalist and just a guy following current events, I’ve come across countless examples of accidents or near-accidents unfolding from organizations that once considered themselves bullet-proof.

The episodes that immediately came to mind were the Challenger and Columbia space shuttle disasters. They shared a common thread: Arrogance, indifference, procedural creep.

Boeing has had a pretty good ride of late. It’s order sheet is fat. It’s building airplanes as fast as it can, airplanes that are considered state of the art. The Dreamliner, as it’s known, has introduced lightweight carbon-fibre construction and replaced much of an aircraft’s traditional hydraulically actuated systems with electrical systems using lithium-ion batteries. The ensuing weight reduction has generated 20% fuel savings compared to an older airplane seating as many people (210 to 290, depending on configuration). It’s an enormous technological leap and understandably, airlines, many of them struggling financially, are lining up to buy them.

And you know what? That’s precisely when you put the brakes on and have a good look-see.

Nobody would (yet) suggest Boeing doesn’t manufacture a fine product or that the Dreamliner isn’t a remarkable airplane. They do and it is.

But it could very well be that a company going hell-bent-for-leather, one under pressure to get aircraft out the door (the first aircraft was delivered in September of 2011, more than three years late, and then production went into high gear and last year the company built 46) misses something. Or that the FAA, during the “unprecedented” certification process,  misses something. People and processes aren’t perfect, as aviation has proven again and again and again.

There was a terrific quote posted online by Time magazine on Jan. 11:

“'[Boeing] may have gone too far, too fast in building 46 planes,’ says Richard Aboulafia, vice president of Teal Group, an aerospace and defense industry market analysis firm. ‘You need the proper cadence, that proper manufacturing rhythm.’ Boeing is clearly a sophisticated and experienced producer, but going from zero to 46 with this much innovation is just inviting glitches, says Aboulafia.”

So why not have another look? For silly. Yes, it will cost Boeing and the FAA some money. And why not think of that as an investment rather than a cost? After all, if one of those airplanes has a serious safety episode, one that results in the loss of life, the cost, in human and financial terms, will make the review ordered last Friday by the FAA look like so much pocket change.