After a series of public problems with Boeing’s flagship 787 Dreamliner, TIM ROBINSON asks: is this simply teething troubles or indications of deeper flaws?
An aircraft manufacturer introduces a new passenger aircraft, which pushes the boundaries of aerospace technology with a host of innovative features. Only three months after it enters service, an accident sees a crash involving its new digital fly-by-wire (FBW) system where the aircraft flies directly into a forest at an air show, which kills three passengers onboard and injuring another 50. The year in 1988 and the aircraft is an Air France Airbus A320. Though the cause is later identified to be human factors, some critics forsee that this public tragedy could will doom the A320.
Meanwhile in the first five months of A320 operations the airliner experienced turn backs, a false fire warning, double power failures, APU glitches, software bugs, avionic ‘spikes’ on the ground and even technical issues on a VIP flight with France’s Prime Minister on board. Said Airbus Industries’ Bernard Zeigler, the architect of FBW on the A320 at the time: “Every day in Europe, five airliners on average turn back for various technical reasons. That does not make news. But when the A320 is one of the five, then the mass media cries out.” Sounds familiar?
Yet today the A320 is one of the world’s safest and most popular aircraft with more than 8,000 orders, but at the time this single-aisle airliner from an upstart European manufacturer was an unknown quantity. Its design and new features (including a greater use of composites in primary and secondary structures) FBW controls and sidesticks was a ‘significant depature’ to previous airliners.
787 in the spotlight
Today the safety woes involving the Boeing 787 Dreamliner have grabbed headlines around the world, with the latest a precautionary grounding by US, European, Indian and Japanese regulators until the battery problem is resolved. But can the 787s recent woes which include battery fires, fuel leaks, and even cracked windshields be compared to this earlier example, where lives were lost and which raised questions about airliner safety and whether an airframer had pushed the boundaries of technology too far?
So why is the 787 having these issues? Why are they receiving so much attention? And is the real comparison with Boeing’s earlier 777 (an aircraft which had a fairly uneventful entry into service?) Or is it the Airbus A380, which having suffered an uncontained engine failure in 2010, deeper problems were revealed when it was found that wing cracks had resulted from choosing the wrong material in the design phase? This led to expensive grounding of Superjumbos for repairs. Said the then Airbus CEO Tom Enders last year: “Innovation is a double edged sword. We found out the hard way we didn’t know everything”. Boeing, it seems, are going through this same humbling process.
Indeed another comparison might be the trijet McDonnell Douglas DC-10 from the 1970s, which was grounded by the FAA in 1979 after a fatal accident which killed 271 people highlighted design flaws and which, despite this troubled begining, went gone on to be a reliable airliner.
So although questions around the 787 Dreamliners safety are serious, it is important to retain perspective and note that in this case, the system has worked as advertised and regulators, manufacturer and airlines are working together proactively to uncover and resolve the issue before lives are lost. In previous cases, it was often the case that aviation safety improvements followed actual deaths.
Hype vs reality
Part of the problem here may not be the aircraft itself, but the Boeing PR machine and the aircraft’s high public profile. After dazzling with a world-wide Dreamtour, Farnborough air displays and hyping the 787 to the skies, Boeing succeeded in generating a massive level of excitement and anticipation for the airliner. Airlines are looking forward to flying it, and like the A380, passengers may be willing to pay a premium to fly on it. With around 50 aircraft delivered so far and Boeing keen to deliver to impatient customers awaiting this ‘game changing’ aircraft, it is no wonder any news about the 787 is a headline grabber. Headlines this week such as “Will This Plane Kill You?” thus contribute to the frenzy in the general media.
However regular Airworthiness Directives, technical faults and modifications are a feature of every aircraft’s life and the majority of these happen in the early part of service, where the airliner undergoes day-to-day airline operations, is worked hard and gets wear and tear. Said Boeing Commercial Airplanes’ Ray Conner, last week of the 787′s teething pains: “On a par with EIS of comparable aircraft, such as the 777″, adding, “Every new commercial airplane has issues as it enters service”.
In addition, although airline customers receive through training for both pilots and maintenance engineers well ahead of receiving the aircraft, each airline will have its own Standard Operating Procedures (SOP)s which can differ slightly from each other and which could well play some part in the issues. Given the exhaustive testing (over 200,000 hours) of the 787 and its systems before entry into service, it is therefore puzzling why these battery issues were not discovered previously.
But with the newness of the 787, its high profile, advanced technology and rapid pace of entry into service, these issues stand out more and with the worldwide media reports, and 24/7 social media of Twitter and social media amplifying every snag, it obviously was felt that the aircraft needed a clean bill of health. The in-depth joint FAA/Boeing investigation, covering design and manufacture, with ‘special emphasis’ on the electrical system, should provide that closure and lay to rest any doubts. Nothing so far suggests that there is a fundemental safety flaw in the design of the 787.
There is no doubt that Boeing too has pushed the envelope of aerospace technology with composites and more-electric systems in the power-hungry 787. In addition, in common with car and computer manufacturers for the 787 it embraced outsourcing, with the benefits and hazards that entails. Much like the A320 and FBW, its composites and its advanced electrical system has been seen as a ‘leap in the dark’, despite the growing proportion of composite use in civil aircraft and the military aviation sectors earlier adoption of the lightweight material. And although safety questions have been raised about lithium-ion batteries in aviation applications, millions of us are happy to carry iPads, smart phones in our pockets and bags, without carrying a fire extinguisher at all times.
In addition, today, there are fewer and fewer airliner types to enter service, compared to say the 1960s where Boeing’s name also competed with Douglas, Convair, Fokker, Hawker-Siddely, BAC and Vickers for the headlines. Today there are unrealistic expectations (often inflated by the manufacturers marketing departments, it has to be said) that every new aircraft will work perfectly, 100% of the time, even at the critical time when it enters service. Compare this with the McDonnell Douglas’s MD-80 in the late 1970s where two prototypes out of three were written off before entry into service during flight testing. Today perceptions of safety (not just in aviation) and fear of court cases or legal actions make for a much more different environment then even 30 years ago.
Even if the FAA/Boeing review does pick up a possible design, manufacturing flaw, or quality control issue, it is worth remembering that this, though embarrassing and costly, this is the perfect time to discover it and solve it. With 50 aircraft in service and a backlog of over 800 aircraft to deliver, the earlier a technical fix or change can be incorporated in the production line, the better. As Airbus found out when fixing QF32′s damaged A380, the time to find wing cracks (or any other problem), is well before they become a real safety issue. However the wideranging look at both the design and manufacturing process by an aviation regulator to an experienced, large aerospace manufacturer is somewhat unprecedented.
Although in last week’s press conference Boeing denied that the snags were an issue of outsourcing, previously its executives have already admitted its outsourcing strategy had gone awry on the 787 and had inflicted delays on the programme, and thus any production issues, (such as a a batch of substandard components from suppliers) that might come to light would be confirmation of this. In 2011, for example, Boeing’s Jim Albaugh told an audience in London on outsourcing: ”we lost control on the 787.” Rectifying this could therefore be very costly.
Undoubtedly then this has caused a great deal of embarrassment to Boeing and well as damage to the company’s stock price . An airliner that is already late, has now been the focus of safety questions and any future technical snags, however small will be combed over with a fine toothcomb. Any fixes and adjustments to the design or manufacture could also see delays in the production, just when it was ramping up, potentially leading to furious airlines demanding compensation. Both Boeing and its airline customers will be hoping for a quick fix, although the FAA is quick to point out that the investigation will take as long as it takes, saying: “Not going to speculate on the timetable – we will go where the data takes us”.
As noted above – part of this is down to Boeing’s huge PR and marketing effort. The company has made much of the technology breakthrough in the 787 Dreamliner, from its carbon composites, the fuel-sipping economy, the lower cabin pressure, dimmable windows and the fact it is includes a much more electric system than previous airliners.
But as the flagship of a new generation of civil airliners, then, far more than Boeing’s corporate image rests on it. Those who think that that not flying 787s might avoid this in the future, might be interested to know that Airbus’s new A350 XWB, set to fly this year, will also be built of composites, and use lithium-ion batteries for the starting and emergency power supply system, although in a different architecture. Even Bombardier’s smaller single-aisle airliner, the CSeries,(also set to fly this year) features a carbon-composite wing, lower cabin altitude and an outsourced production strategy.
Though Boeing and arch-rival Airbus disagree on many things, and will fight tooth and nail to win orders, on safety they, along with the rest of the industry are united. It is noteworthy that Airbus CEO Fabrice Bregier said this week at the European airframers results conference: “I honestly wish all the best to my colleagues at Boeing to get the 787 back into service, because an aircraft is designed to fly.” A lack of public confidence in aviation’s outstanding safety record (2012 was the safest year since the dawn of the jet age) affects everybody.
The bottom line
It would thus be a mistake to now write-off the 787 as a failure or jump to the conclusion it is somehow inherently unsafe. Said the FAA’s new Adminstrator Michael Huerta: “‘There is nothing I have seen that leads me to believe this airplane  isn’t safe.”
Today when millions have travelled on A320s safely, who now thinks back to the 1988 crash, worries about the FBW system, or remembers its minor entry-into-service teething troubles? Indeed FBW technology has now gone from military aircraft, to airliners and now to bizjets. Airbus too, managed to weather the very public crash of the then innovative A320 to become an aerospace powerhouse to rival Boeing and today is having to open more factories (the latest in to be Alabama) since it cannot build A320s fast enough. Who else, too, recalls the DC-10s grounding from 34 years ago? There is no reason to doubt that the 787 will not bounce back from this either.
However, Boeing is set to face an uphill battle to regain lost confidence from both passengers and customers. In an age of instant news and safety scares, the general public will want to be reassured that the airliner is safe to fly in the future and airlines will not only want compensation for lost revenue, but also will want a guarantee that this battery issue is the only ‘gotcha’ they can expect and there will be no more global groundings.
Thanks to Boeing’s mighty marketing machine, the 787 has had a very public birth – and thus its teething troubles too are set to be magnified as well. This episode may very well prove expensive and toe-curlingly embarrassing for Boeing, but the end result is that it will either validate the Dreamliner as a safe, modern aircraft, or improve it to be even safer.
Finally, it is worth reiterating a key point once again. Advances in commercial aviation safety have, in the past, been paid for in blood and charred bodies, and have usually followed a crash or even a series of crashes. The 787′s grounding and the FAA safety review may be expensive, embarrassing and generate headlines, but it shows manufacturer, regulators and operators all working together to prevent a fatal accident before it occurs.