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Is the Dreamliner the new DC-10?

Is it over for Boeing’s Dreamliner barely before it began?

United Airlines 787, one of the grounded aircraft and part of the UA 787 fleet where one had to make an emergency landing – Engadget photo and article.

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.

Dreamliner with evacuation shoots deployed and emergency response vehicles

Evacuated ANA 787 in Japan after electrical malfunctions and smoke. From The Guardian

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)?


KLM Douglas DC-10. Image from WidebodyAircraft.nl airline enthusiast site from the Netherlands.

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:

Rather than the bleedless configuration used on the Boeing 787, Airbus has confirmed that it will further develop a full bleed air system on the engines.

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.

About Mark Mercer

Expat aging sometime-ski-bum former corporate tool. Currently living in the beachside aging resort town of Atlántida in Uruguay. Sometimes skiing and teaching in Breckenridge, Colorado, USA. Location and velocity cannot be simultaneously observed.


4 Responses to “Is the Dreamliner the new DC-10?”

  1. I'm afraid you couldn't be more wrong about the DC-10. It was not of the same era as the 757/767. In fact, it first flew more than a decade earlier at a time when the idea of two engines for long haul sounded crazy. The DC-10 certainly had teething issues but it went on to have a very successful and long career. The reason it was retired had nothing to do with passenger acceptance or safety concerns. It was simply due to economics. As engines became more and more reliable, airlines became more comfortable with having only two engines for long flights. The DC-10, when compared to the 767 and newer 777 along with the Airbus counterparts, guzzled too much gas. That lack of fuel efficiency is what sent them to the graveyard well into the 2000s.

    Posted by Cranky Flier | 2013-01-17, 14:14
    • Thanks for the read and reply. However I stand by my contention that the reputation of the plane among passengers, and thus its ability to generate ticket sales for the airlines, was a big part of its demise. And I'm not the only one drawing the Dreamliner/DC-10 parallel. In fact since I wrote this, several more blog pieces and articles by news organizations have been raising that exact same parallel. For example, BusinessWeek: http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2013-01-17/t….

      As to the "same era as the 757/767" being untrue: Sorry, wrong. I don't write for the airliners.net obsessive airplane geek audience, so the launch dates are irrelevant factoids. The facts that matter are that the DC-10 series and its follow-on MD-11 have substantial overlap with the Boeing 767 of the time period when they were in heavy airline usage. That Bloomberg Businessweek article notes that the last DC-10 was delivered in 1989, which was well after the 767 series was in use. Sure, the DC-10 commercial launch was a decade and a year before the 767 (1971 vs 1982), but in the 1980s and 1990s both were in common use. Obviously, the 767 survived to this day as a major player for the airlines, in significant part for the reasons of efficiency you give and the later acceptance by airlines and passengers of a 2-engine overwater aircraft. But Douglas had plans for a twinjet variant of the DC-10 too. And the DC-10/MD-11 is larger than the 767; maybe not today, but likely for another several years, there would have been a place for it in passenger service.

      The flying public did become aware of it from the various crashes, and did lose faith in it. I remember that well, I remember comments from corporate travel departments, I remember "chatter". The same image problem is happening with the 787. There are dozens if not more articles, analyses, commentaries all over the web, including some of archives from those pre-web days, on the reputational damage to the aircraft from its safety problems and high-profile events, including a high ratio of hull-loss incidents.

      I liked the DC-10 as a passenger. I flew on many, from "back in the day" up through that late 2005 KLM flight I mentioned. First trip to Europe was in 1989 on a Lufthansa DC-10 using United miles. I had the fish 🙂 Taken Eastern, Continental, American, and Delta DC-10s at various times. But it got a reputation, and the reputation hurt it probably as much as did its fuel efficiency. We Flyertalkers have been going gaga about the Dreamliner, posting about taking trips just to fly on it, tracking new 787 routes and speculating about others. The general public, however, is going to start thinking of it as the Deathliner (even though nobody has died, yet) or the Fireliner.

      In general, when the public becomes aware of what kind of plane it is, it is rarely a good thing. DC-10. Q400 Dash-8. 787 Dreamliner. You really don't want the public to care about what you are flying, unless it already has a rock-solid reputation. Many airlines may find themselves all Jeff'd up by the degree of positive hype they spewed about the 787. They made sure people know it exists and know they have it in their fleets. Now, they will see backlash. And Boeing will see canceled or indefinitely delayed orders or swaps to 777 variants.

      Posted by Mark Mercer | 2013-01-18, 00:42
    • You're both wrong about the MD-11. The reason it was cancelled is that McDonell-Douglas was bought out by Boeing and it would have not made sense to keep building MD-11s stealing orders from 777s. It is cheaper to build 200 777s on the same line than 100 777s, and 100 MD-11s. The 777 also shares technologies with other Boeing aircraft which make it easier to maintain for Airlines who have large Boeing fleets. Had Boeing not bought out McDonnell-Douglas, there would likely be the two engine derivative of the DC-10/MD-11, the MD-12 flying around today.

      Posted by Matt | 2013-01-27, 06:27
  2. I hope so on both the above 787-revival and 767-retirement thoughts, Dee.

    As far as I see, the only reason the 767 line was kept running was the constant re-rigging of the USAF new tanker contract specs by Congress, especially Senator Patty Murray of Washington State, to keep finding new ways to make Boeing’s 767-airframe-based bid get the sale, even though Airbus’ A330-based one kept winning on specs.

    Conceptually, the 787 is the right size aircraft for many routes, and is a good application of much new technology. New, not bleeding edge. But the outsourcing beyond what Boeing ever did before, the initial assembly problems, the political nonsense about the 2nd plant in South Carolina, and the insufficient risk analysis and risk mitigation on using Li-on tech to such an unprecedented degree in commercial aviation, made the execution of the concept an utter mess.

    I want to see it fly. I want to fly on it. But not until the root cause analysis is complete and a real solution in place.

    Posted by Mark Mercer | 2013-03-29, 00:05

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