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.”