Wednesday, January 23, 2013

"Teething Problems" Bite Boeing on the Tail

Bjorn Kjos during an interview in Oslo in November
View the update HERE:

Norwegians's Bjorn Kjos has a heck of a lot riding on those two new Dreamliners that were soon to be winging their way to Oslo with Sonja Henie's lovely face affixed to the tail. Somebody explain to him, and to me, how the heck Boeing can assure him they are close to fixing the mysterious battery fire problem when so far, nobody even knows what's causing it?


"They will definitely fix the battery problems," Kjos told Reuters at an aviation conference in Dublin. "They say it is going to be fixed soon; they have a plan. They say it will be delivered according to the schedule," he reportedly told the wire service. 

A Norwegian 737 at the gate in Oslo
Plan? Fix? Schedule? What?

For safety's sake let's hope this conversation with Norway's celebrity airline boss was with a Boeing sales representative and not the Boeing folks responsible for working with federal regulators and investigators to get to the bottom of what everyone is so happy to call the Dreamliner's "teething problems."  From them we hope and expect some circumspection.

I've said it before, I'll say it again. You can apply the term "teething problems" to things like cracked windshields, problems with fuselage shims, even unexpected corrosion in Rolls Royce Trent 1000 engine gears, a problem that grounded five ANA 787's last July. I felt a toothy nibble in September, when, on my return trip from Tokyo to Boston on Japan Airlines, a number of 787 and 747's were undergoing emergency inspections of the GEnx engines that power them.
A JAL mechanic in Tokyo inspects a GEnx engine in September
But when the troubles involve technology so new even the Federal Aviation Administration admits its has limited experience and requires the manufacturer to meet "special conditions", and when getting it wrong can result in an in-flight fire and/or power loss on a largely electric airplane, that's not a teething problem. 

One of two Dreamliner batteries being examined
Some American politicians don't think so either. The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee is considering conducting a hearing to find out why the FAA allowed Boeing special use of lithium ion batteries. And let's not forget that the Department of Transportation has ordered the FAA to conduct a sweeping examination of everything having to do with the design, production and manufacturing of the airplane.

I'll say it again, what's happening with the Dreamliner is not  a teething problem. 

No, my friends, what that is, is a powerful bite on the butt and Kjos and other purchasers who believe Boeing's fast-talking reassurances to the contrary are certainly dreaming.

6 comments:

Ron Kuhlmann said...

You are right. Fire is never an acceptable risk in the air. However, those of us who have been in the industry for many years understand that the problem will be found and a fix will be made. It may be expensive and it may take a while but once it is completed, the aircraft will enter service and five years from now only aviation folks will remember any of the details.

Cutting edge technology is risky and this aircraft is certainly in that category. Going into space brought a number of accidents and even deaths, but the fixes were made and we are on the cusp of private space travel.

And the last thing we need is to have Congress involved. Remember the head of the House Science committee decided that a woman's body can cast off legitimate rape. Most of these clowns have no background or experience in such technology and the desire to make political points will certainly outweigh any thoughtful consideration. Look at the circus around Benghazi.

There is ample reason to be concerned and equally valid reason to believe that those who made the aircraft can also fix it. This kind of hyperbole just doesn't fly.

Unknown said...

Ron,
I agree with you 100% on your point, "The last thing we need is to have Congress involved." Unfortunately, it is. It should serve as a lesson to the Transportation Secretary and FAA Administrator not to make a mockery of legitimate concerns by holding a news conference and announcing the airplane was safe, when all indications suggested a serious investigation was needed. They've done the right thing now, but the delay gave the politicians a bone on which to gnaw.

Ron Kuhlmann said...

Agreed, but it is a fine line to be walked. After years of testing and review, the aircraft was certified. That process is complex and thorough, but not foolproof as multiple groundings in the past have shown. Until there is a clear problem identified, any statements that hint at "well, maybe" undermine the process and confidence in the airplane prior to definitive action. I departed on ANA's 787 from SJC on Jan 12 and had no qualms. However, we returned on a 777 to SFO.

I have flown over 3 million miles and trust the builders, regulators and operators to do their jobs for me and, while slips do occur, this process has worked as it should and the timing was prudent until a clear pattern became evident.

Douglas said...

Christine, you say "...find out why the FAA allowed Boeing special use of lithium ion batteries."

I think the answer is the elephant in the room. Money ! It will be interesting to see the results of the investigation, if it really takes place. It is interesting for me to see how threads tie the FAA to commercial enterprise. (I speak of my particular field, Aviation English.) There is even a tongue-in-cheek term "FAA Mafia" floating around. Where there is money to be made or lost nothing surprises me any more.

Grumpy said...

IMO Douglas is half right: money + green. Holman Jenkins's Business World column in the weekend WSJ (p.A13)predicts the fallout from the current dilemma: "An industrywide cluster-phenomenon will now ensue if the FAA decides such batteries can't be used in planes after all."
The bleats of the Three Stooges have inadvertently backed the FAA into a dilemma from which there's no way out: If it rules that the batteries are "safe," it'll be accused of folding to pressure from on high; if it rules them unsafe, then see above, as well as hordes of Greens bearing signs descending on D.C. again.
When are the politicians going to learn that "...it's better to be silent and thought a fool, than to speak and prove it"?

L Benner Jr said...

Christine, I hope you can broaden the scope of your blogs on this subject to address the process by which the "problem behavior" was discovered, addressed and controlled before major loss occurred, so we can learn some positive lessons from these kinds of episodes.