Is it over for Boeing’s Dreamliner barely before it began?
In the last 48 hours, airlines or regulatory authorities worldwide have banned the Boeing 787 from the skies, until there is a full understanding of its many problems and a resolution. Fuel is leaking. Fires are starting in the very controversial lithium-ion battery-powered APU – traditional aircraft use a hot-air bleed system for that, and Li-on batteries are capable of ignition, which is why you and I are banned from packing them in our checked luggage according to international airline safety regulations!
Two days ago, Japan’s largest airlines, JAL (a significant partner of American Airlines in both a revenue sharing deal and in the broader oneworld alliance, and ANA (a significant partner of United in both a revenue sharing deal and the broader Star Alliance), voluntarily grounded their 787 fleets.
Yesterday, the US Federal Aviation Administration grounded the US-registered 787 fleet, which is solely flown by United Airlines. United did not choose to follow its partner ANA’s lead, so the FAA made the decision for them. Today, more airlines around the world and more governmental aviation authorities have grounded 787 Dreamliners based on the information shared by Japan and the USA to the worldwide aviation community. And in no small measure, because of customer trepidation about the aircraft’s safety and reliability. “If Japan and the US say it is unsafe, why is my country or my airline still allowing it?” is a rational response by the public. (Update: LAN Airlines of South America, whom I wrote about getting the first 787 in the Americas, also has grounded their fleet of 3 Dreamliners.)
My opinion? There are far too many untested concepts and new systems and materials, new to commercial aviation, in this aircraft. Boeing was trying too hard to make it unique, to do things differently. Plus it has a horrible history of delays, in part from its globally-outsourced construction which had only final assembly at Boeing in Everett, WA and now also in North Carolina. Boeing has pulled back some of the global subassembly work and in other cases changed subcontractors because of the years of delays and defects.
I’m a software engineer, not an aviation engineer. Take that into consideration with my comments. But as a multi-decade software professional, I have seen too many “over-engineered” systems, too many attempts to use the latest trendy technology that on paper sounds wonderful, but has unknown systematic interactions when integrated into an extremely complex whole. I fear that some of that same excessive and unknown systematic complexity plagues this design.
As to the DC-10: Do you remember the 3-engine widebody aircraft flown by many US and international airlines in the 1970s, from McDonnell-Douglas (now owned by Boeing)?
Slightly smaller than a 747 but a bigger than Boeing’s “small widebody” 767. Plenty of Boeing 767s from that era right up through today are still flying in passenger service; the international fleets of United (both pre-merger United and pre-merger Continental, to which subsidary the Dreamliner belongs), American Airlines, Delta, and US Airways are chock-full of 767s. But (almost) nobody flies passengers in scheduled service on the DC-10 anymore, nor on its slightly-modified and renamed successor, the MD-11. Many high-profile problems. Bad design choices, a failed cargo door that could blow open, a hydraulic system where one engine severe failure could take out all the hydraulic control of the aircraft, and some resultant crashes and miraculous partial survivals. The ticket-buying public, who usually does not care nor know what kind of plane they are on, became very aware of the DC-10/MD-11 and lost faith in it.
The last time I flew a DC-10 probably is back in the 1990s. The last time I flew its successor, an MD-11, was in late 2005 on Holland’s KLM on a trip from San Francisco to Switzerland via Amsterdam. LAX-AMS was on their MD-11. (And had a singing flight attendant as perky as Maria in _The Sound of Music_.) I was aware that McDonnell-Douglas had long since solved the safety issues of the DC-10/MD-11 family. But the general public wasn’t. I didn’t mind, and in fact kind of enjoyed a “last ride” on that classic bird. KLM still flies a few routes on the MD-11, including at least in 2012 still that San Francisco to Amsterdam route. If you aren’t a subject of a repressive government that bans you from going to Cuba, you also can fly it from Amsterdam to Havana. I can’t, being from “the land of the free”.
These planes are not “too old” to fly. The long narrowbody 757s that are a mainstay of American and United fleets are from that era, along with those inherited by Delta from the Northwest merger (Delta’s own are newer.) Many 767s are that old as I noted above. Some United and Delta 747s (the only US airlines still flying them and those only in longhaul Trans-Pacific service) are quite old. Aircraft last a long time. But passengers will not fly them anymore.
I think that is already happening to the brand new 787 Dreamliner. In part because airlines have been hyping that “we have the Dreamliner”. United one of the worst in this regard, to distract from their generally miserable performance as an on-time, customer-friendly, operational airline after the Continental merger (which was mostly a takeover by Continental management, not that UA management was any good either.) People know about the Dreamliner. People have been told to change airlines to fly the Dreamliner. People have heard how great the Dreamliner is for better comfort, lighting, higher humidity and cabin pressure for better breathing, bigger electrically-darkened windows for a better view (which don’t work!)
Now that they know about the Dreamliner, they are hearing of all the fires and fuel leaks and other problems. Yes, other aircraft have had teething pains. But not this level of hype along with it. Thankfully the 787 has not yet caused any fatalities nor even serious injuries, though likely some ankles were twisted in evacuations. But the flying public, and at least in the USA, the public in general, has become even more fearful and risk-averse than only a decade or so ago. Look at the helmet and seatbelt laws, the lawsuits for any medical outcome that is not ideal, the demand that the government “do something” whenever there is a problem even if there is nothing practical nor sensible to be done. We Americans have as a whole a lower threshold for “ban the dangerous thing”. I suspect the public has already had it with the Dreamliner. I suspect a lot of cancelled orders. Especially by US-based airlines and airlines that would primarily serve the US with this plane.
I also suspect there will be yet another extension of the long-planned-to-cancel 767 assembly line at Boeing, an increased push for new versions of the larger and long-proven 777 widebody (bigger than 767, bigger than a 787, still much smaller than a 747). And I suspect that Airbus executives are feeling just fine about the delays that kept their 787 competitor, the less-radically-designed A350XWB, out of the market until about a year from now. Note this from the linked Wikipedia article:
The “bleedless configuration” of the Boeing 787 is exactly why there is a Lithium-Ion battery used for the Auxiliary Power system, which is what has been catching fire.
You want to see DC-10 and MD-11 aircraft in service? Head over to the cargo terminal section of any major airport. They all went to FedEx, UPS, various other cargo, express, freight carriers. I have a feeling that 787s may be heading that way sooner and in larger numbers than anybody expected.
Your thoughts? Other than “That’s why I only fly Southwest” which would be an utterly idiotic comment because Southwest does not serve longhaul international markets which is why the 787 exists. You like Southwest? How nice for you, how was your trip to Thailand on Southwest? When do you have enough Southwest Rapid Rewards to come visit South America? Did you like seeing Paris on Southwest? Right, get back in your boarding lineup behind the right number and letter.