Saturday, January 12, 2013

Powerful Spin on Dreamliner Problems


Confused yet? You're not alone. Anybody watching the three men at today's Dreamliner news conference might have felt like that they were listening to that country & western song in which a husband still trying to defend himself after being caught with his mistress asks his wife, "Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?"  

Over the past few months anyone paying a modicum of attention has seen Boeing's game-changing 787 fly from one problem to another until this week when, in a crescendo worthy of a Japanese horror film, there were four unfortunate events including a battery fire on the tarmac at Boston's Logan Airport that - had it occurred in the air - could have been a disaster.

LaHood at Huerta's swearing in as FAA chief on Wednesday
So I was not surprised when, in my inbox Friday morning, there appeared an announcement from Boeing that the U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood would be launching a comprehensive review of the world's newest airliner. What did surprise me is how this momentous occasion featuring Sect. LaHood, Federal Aviation Administration boss Michael Huerta and Boeing CEO Ray Conner was successfully spun into a ringing endorsement of the airplane. As if the three of them weren't gathered before the television cameras because all recent evidence seems to indicate precisely the opposite.

First, Huerta says, "there will be a complete review of the airplane's design, production and manufacturing with the electrical systems getting the highest priority," then barely taking a breath, he goes on to say, "nothing we have seen leads us to believe the airplane is not safe."

The NTSB examining the fire damage on JAL's 787 photo courtesy NTSB
Nothing? Perhaps Mr. Huerta didn't see what the National Transportation Safety Board investigator saw in Boston earlier this week. On his knees, with a flashlight in the aft E&E bay of Japan Airlines's 787 a smoldering hole where the battery used to be. Three investigators have been assigned to explore what happened and why.

I have been told by two people in the know, that had this fire happened in flight, rather than while the airplane was parked at the gate, it could have caused the plane to crash because the flight systems are electrically controlled and the airplane gains some of its fuel efficiency by its inherent aerodynamic instability, an instability that relies on constant flight correction via electrical input. I'm not even going to pretend I understand the redundancies in power supply and distribution on the Dreamliner. It is new, it is novel, it is revolutionary, all adjectives used to much success by Boeing to sell this airplane to its customers around the world.  

Raymond Conner photo courtesy Boeing
"Every new airplane has issues as they enter services," Boeing's Conner said. But the process leading to the certification of this plane was "the most robust in the history of aviation," he added.

I won't quibble that point, but after all, make an airplane with this many new features and you are flying into uncharted territory. The downside of novel designs is that without experience, one can't claim expertise. The engineers from Boeing, and the engineers from the FAA can't know what they don't know which is why it makes sense to go back and re examine every step along the way to certification and how the plane is performing now and what's gone wrong.

I invite you to compare the DOT/FAA's decision to re study the Dreamliner while it still flies with the decision of regulators in the days after the near-disaster on Qantas Flight 32. When the largest passenger jet in the world underwent an uncontained engine failure in November 2010, all Airbus A380s with Rolls Royce Trent 900 engines were grounded to give safety folks time to catch up on what was going on and assess the safety risks.

The Boeing 787 photo courtesy Boeing
The G-word wasn't mentioned at Friday's news conference. What was heard - repeatedly - was statements endorsing the safety of the plane. This is at cross purposes with the goal of the review. How can the people who originally certified the plane give the work its proper skepticism if before the first new question is asked, the top dogs are already insisting there's nothing wrong with the plane? 

That sales talk is to be expected from Boeing. but the traveling public deserves more than comments from LaHood that he's willing to fly the Dreamliner. 

Is he, is Huerta, and are the agencies they control willing to review their earlier decisions with an eye toward making the 787 a better plane? Because that's what is needed - that and a lot less spin from the men at the top.   

Post a Comment