How Safe is the Boeing 787?

The new Boeing 787 Dreamliner has suffered from a few headline-grabbing engine problems. Are the planes safe to ride on?

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The new Boeing Dreamliner 787 sits on the tarmac at Manchester Airport during its tour of the world on April 24, 2012 in Manchester, England.

An engine blew up, in flight; the backup brakes didn’t work right; cracks were discovered in the wing, and there were questions related to a new design, new technology, and a three-year delay in the product launch.

No, it’s not the Boeing Dreamliner. We’re talking about the Airbus A380, whose introduction into the world’s airline fleets was punctuated by an engine disintegrating midflight on a Qantas Airlines jet in November 2010. Qantas promptly grounded its fleet of big birds, but other airlines did not. Instead they worked through the problem with Airbus and the engine maker, Rolls Royce.

Early operational problems are the way of all new aircraft and ― at this point― it’s likely the same thing is happening to the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. The new jet, delayed a couple of years by design and production issues, has suffered a variety of glitches. This week, a fire broke out in an auxiliary power unit (APU) on a Japan Airlines 787 at a gate in Boston. The APU powers the jet on the ground. There were no injuries. Another JAL Dreamliner flight from Boston was delayed after a fuel leak was discovered. It was traced to a faulty valve. And United Airlines discovered faulty wiring on one of its six new Dreamliners.

None of these seem to be potentially catastrophic failures, and Mike Sinnett, the jet’s chief project engineer, told a press conference:  “I am 100% convinced that the airplane is safe to fly. I fly on it myself all the time.” Nevertheless, the Federal Aviation Administration announced Friday that it would begin conducting a comprehensive review of the 787′s critical systems.

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The Dreamliner is a mid-sized, twin-aisle, twin engine, three compartment 250-seat aircraft that uses 20% less fuel than comparable jets because of its next generation design. Composite materials are used instead of aluminum in 50% of the fuselage, making the jet lighter, with fewer parts.  This allows it to fly long distances, a key selling point for carriers such as JAL. It’s also Boeing’s first completely fly-by-wire commercial jet, with what Sinnett calls a “more-electric architecture” replacing hydraulics that control things such as wing surfaces. (Ironically, the APU incident is indirectly linked to the lack of hydraulics. You need a battery to start the APU in a 787, and it’s the battery that is a suspected cause of the fire; in older planes the APU has a hydraulically powered starter.) To run this architecture there are six electric generators on the aircraft, although Boeing says it can stay aloft with just one operational. That’s a weight and power saver, too. The jet also has improved environmental systems and creature comforts.

The problem isn’t so much the new materials and new technology, but Boeing’s ability to master them as it struggles to catch up with its orders. Final assembly on the first jet began in May 2007, but production problems delayed the first commercial delivery until September 2011. Since then Boeing has had to get it into gear to start catching up with the 800 orders on its books. Last year, Boeing built 46 jets, lifting its production rate from 2.5 to 3.5 airplanes per month in part by using what the company calls a Temporary Surge Line at its vast Everett, Washington works. Boeing wants to raise the rate to 10 per month, operating from Washington and its new assembly line in South Carolina.

Is that too many? “They 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. For instance, jets need to be pulled off the line when something goes wrong in the manufacturing process, and these “reworks” mess with the rhythm. Also, Boeing has outsourced more pieces of the 787 than it has other jets, meaning its systems integration is potentially more complicated.

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Boeing says relax and enjoy the flight — everything’s under control. The company’s stock took a hit on the JAL and United news, but Boeing would take a bigger hit if it had to slow production rates, and thus cash flow. So while FAA conducts its review and the National Transportation Safety Board investigates the JAL fire incident, Boeing will be busy running down the bugs. “It is a brand-new airplane. And like any brand-new airplane program, the first year or two in service there are issues we have to work through,” Sinnett said. An arc in a power panel that caused a smoke condition on a test flight has been corrected, for instance. The hugely successful 777 had its own issues initially, he noted.  The Dreamliner is no different. “Just like any new airplane program, we work through those issues and we move on,” he said.

So do you get on a 787? “You do, absolutely,” says  Aboulafia. The only question, he says, is whether you have a backup plan if more of these glitches cause more canceled flights. “This isn’t a safety issue as much as it is a capacity issue,” he says. “And there isn’t much backup capacity.”

13 comments
jrchris9
jrchris9

The Aircraft is a fine addition to the Boeing name-BUT the battery? and the fix,in a tin box?

jrchris9
jrchris9

Bryan Patrick Bernard-  GOOD LUCK.

easyweblinx
easyweblinx

the airbus boeing race will end in a disaster soon............


easynewslinx.com

Planktron
Planktron

I fix commercial aircraft for a living. I have never heard of an apu with a hydraulic starter. They are always electric. The fire resulted from the dreamliner's use of new lithium ion batteries.

Stuart Meyer
Stuart Meyer

I've worked on aircraft engines for years, doing fatigue and vibration testing. I know that in the first 5 years, you will have teething problems. The key is to manage and fix the issues decisively. But, I can see why there is the perception of a larger safety issue due to the frequency of events, and I think Time is asking a valid question. Are these isolated incidents or has due diligence been done?

Charles Dawson
Charles Dawson

Might watch it on a episode of mayday in the near future, don't know!?!

Kesh Kesavadas
Kesh Kesavadas

Knee jerk reaction to some teething problems. As some one who has worked on design and mfg. of jet engines, I do not think the problems rise up to the level of "how safe is 787". Guess Time needs to write up some story.

Robin Ballard
Robin Ballard

Really?! This is Time's article? Do you know how freakin' hard it is for Boeing to compete with Airbus?! DOES the public need to read this ? Is TIME killing off potential Boeing customers and consequently putting at risk American jobs?!! Stay tuned for crazed reporting!!!

Andri Luntungan
Andri Luntungan

Undaunted Never Enforce Truth "Maybe when this man thinking what will I do today?" But in itself does not look there is a great blessing that came running, and the blessings that come in various ways: Some are shaped material, happiness and therefore gets the position, as well as others get happy news, and many more that come to every people. "All that came not suddenly but there is a process of human experience and therefore whether he is diligent, or does he often turned to self or perhaps because of her work well and often better behave." But there are also people in this morning who are grieving may therefore hurt by her lover or also because of dihianati by theme, it could be because of exposure to the point of slander brought in a green shirt and worn hukaman.? This is what every day about where on earth terjsadi dipijak.Mungkin those who receive good news, he will be happy.? but perhaps there is also a stumbling block at this time they are exposed to the law, so terpitnah, and eventually he was charged article that made him have to inhabit the prison? This is an ongoing life of this world. All events are sometimes difficult to understand! meaning that only humans can do and try but sometimes what has been well made by someone and everything cautious, but still sometimes more powerful force pitnah ketibang goodness.! Human life is often dincar by force irih envy, slander, and should be able to withstand sebagainya.Dia such enormous power of fitnah, so he's just himself and a bunch of makers pitnah greater honesty forces finally defeated too. "This is the life of this age." Maybe once the bar is right when people think "What am I going to do today?" Have you ever thought bagamana way all your life to do-help someone.? Inside there precisely in cell flaws, and "they are not necessarily all of the pressures of sin?", May also be affected pitnah therefore, exposed to unwarranted accusations, and perhaps also by other forces cause mebuat he can get in the cage. From there, let's learn to meditate properly is made menegagkan truth, "although it should be against the risks so big before." But in order to defend the right to never be afraid. Harini means that we do good and we do that tomorrow will be better value than Harini bertamabh and so did not do. "A lot of people easily ingested issues and not least also the issue of human sacrifice can, that" Man can be destroyed because of the Issue, or by reason irih force that lurks around it. "The irih usually do not hesitate to throw a variety of ways that people can fall in the trap. Why the irih come along with the envy? these two properties are usually always menmpel within the human soul., and not a few people who were destroyed by the irih terkenah and the blades dengki.Terbukti the irih already throwing slander usually dbarengi with envy carpenter he worked melamparkan cemohan against those regarded as enemies. to be careful all the men and keep watch. recently a woman who has never felt what ditudukan should be forced to accept article., and he is likewise threatened by a shortage of fines and confinement- prison about four years. "And what yaang alleged all it's arguably never been done." But he must be willing to accept the threat of punishment, "is there anything that moved? and does anyone want to defend her, and can the irih to be entered and the envy is not just an incoming dipitnah.? "Masi is there any souls who have purity in enforcement keadalina?, And masi is there in the decision have different visions to life in the spotlight.? Mungikin question just touching it.! Seeing many honest men were lost in this world is a big question? and the great quotes? by kaena it is reasonable slats Harini what you should do. "no other writer invites pondering Enforcement should be done and the truth of the irih opponent and the envy that has made this world a mess all.

jrchris9
jrchris9

@Robin Ballard  Boeing is a fine Aircraft company (I'm English) but can you imagine if the fix is not ok? Boeing would suffer

a huge downturn-better to be safe-rather than rush it through.  Why not change to another battery like Airbus or use the system of the 777? Then find out the problem at your leisure?