Sunday, 13 January 2013

Boeing For The Win - 787 Setbacks Reveal Industry Lessons Learned

A Japan Airlines Boeing 787 'Dreamliner' at Tokyo's Narita Airport (Source: Bloomberg)
On January 7, 2013 a battery overheated and started a fire in an empty Japan Airlines Boeing 787 'Dreamliner' jet on the tarmac at Boston Logan International Airport. which took emergency crews 40 minutes to extinguish. The following day a second JAL 787 experienced a fuel leak, also at Boston, leading to the cancellation of its schedule flight to Tokyo-Narita. Then the day after that, United Airlines reported a problem in one of its six 787s with the wiring in the same area as the battery fire on the JAL plane, leading the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to open a safety probe on the newly introduced jet.

Not surprisingly, global news media leaped onto the story like a rottweiler on a rabbit, fuelling rumours that Boeing's highly touted new long-range mid-capacity jet airliner was unsafe to fly. This recent bad news about the jet dubbed the 'Dreamliner' by its manufacturers is the latest in a long procession of negative PR fallout surrounding the plane, whose development production were plagued by delays, leading customers such as United and Air India to demand compensation from Boeing. In light the over two-year delay in the plane's maiden flight, which led some to dub it the 'Seven-Late-Seven', the fact that problems clearly remain with the jet could scarcely be worse for its manufacturers.

New design, new potential problems (Source: Digitaltrends.com)
Except of course that it could easily be worse. Far worse. While it was without doubt a bad week for Boeing, the problems were relatively minor ones that resulted in exactly zero deaths or injuries or hull loses. Moreover, the battery and fuel system problems, while they have yet to be resolved, are not atypical of a brand new airplane with kinks still to be ironed out, especially in one as chock-full of new design features as this one. "There’s a lot of new technology on this plane," asserted Richard Aboulafia, Vice President of Analysis at the aerospace market analysis firm Teal Group and a renowned aviation expert. “It’s a very innovative aircraft and the potential for big and small glitches has been magnified hugely as a result of this innovation.”

More importantly, however, Boeing's transparent communication surrounding the issues - and its rapid deferral to the independent NTSB clearly illustrates that the company, which together with Europe's Airbus SAS dominates the world market for large commercial airlines, has learned from the short-term oversights that have had tragic consequences in the past - and in certain cases led to the downfall of previously high-flying aircraft manufacturers.

Tragic Precedents

The Dreamliner is nothing short of a quantum leap in commercial airliner development. While superficially similar to Boeing's previous wide-body twinjets the 767 and 777,  the 787 is an entirely new creature. Unlike previous jets, whose fuselages are made entirely out of metal, the 787 is made largely out of carbon-fibre-reinforced plastic, made with 23 tons of carbon fiber. This makes the jet considerably lighter than its competitors, burning 20 percent less fuel than the similar-sized 767. So groundbreaking is the new jet's materials that existing safety inspections are entirely inadequate, as composite materials don't show cracks and fatigue like metal does. This has meant that in addition to developing an entirely new place, Boeing has also had to develop entirely new testing methods and equipment for ensuring the jet's safety.

The last time commercial aviation took such a dramatic leap forward was a full generation ago, at the dawn of the widebody jet age. And the last such leap before that was in the early 1950s, at the dawn of the jet age. And in both instances, it took massive loss of life and collapse of once-industry-leading aircraft manufacturers for the industry to learn its lessons on proper product testing.

The first jet in the biz (Source: Flightglobal.org)
In 1949 the British aircraft manufacturer de Havilland unveiled the world's first mass-produced passenger jet aircraft, the Comet 1. Based on World War II-era military engineering breakthroughs, the Comet first entered airline service with British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) on its multi-stop revenue flights between London and Johannesburg in May 1952. Subsequent orders were placed by Air India, Japan Airlines, Canadian Pacific and others. The Comet craze lasted less than two years before coming to a tragic end off the coast of Italy in January 1954 when BOAC Flight 781 tore itself apart in midair, killing all 35 people on board. Three months later, another Comet, operated by South African Airways, disintegrated in midair after takeoff from Rome, killing 21 people.

Following the second tragedy, all Comet operators grounded the planes and the British government ordered an inquiry into the plane. After extensive torture-testing of existing Comet airframes, it was discovered that metal fatigue cracks around the square windows of the planes had caused both accidents - and would invariably strike again if the problem wasn't corrected. The remaining early Comet models were either scrapped or modified, and subsequent Comet variants were constructed with thicker metal skin. But while the subsequent models performed well, the de Havilland corporation never recovered from the fallout, and was folded into Hawker Siddeley in 1960. The disasters also saw the UK eclipsed by the United States in commercial aircraft manufacturing.

The next quantum leap in civil aviation took place in the late 1960s at the dawn of the 'Jumbo Jet' age, when America's three largest aircraft manufacturers were racing for the upper hand in the development of high-capacity mid-to-long-range jets. In the end it was Boeing who defined the era with the 747, a plane that would define intercontinental air travel for nearly four decades before its eclipsing by the modern-day Airbus A380 and Boeing 777. The 747 was first flown in 1969 and entered commercial service in 1970. Having being beaten by Boeing, rivals Lockheed and McDonnell Douglas were clambering for the second-place spot with their nearly identical trijet models, the L-1011 Tristar and the DC-10.

The ill-fated Turkish Airlines jet (Source: Airliners.net)
The DC-10 story is a graphic cautionary tale of the dangers of insufficient product testing and lack of transparency regarding such issues upon introducing new technology. The plane entered revenue service in mid-1971, less than a year after its maiden flight, and in less than a year after that its fatal design flaws were already apparent to investigators. In 1972 a near-tragic explosive decompression incident on board an American Airlines DC-10 exposed a dangerous design flaw in the plane's cargo bay doors. The problem was never corrected and less than two years later it surfaced again, this time with tragic consequences, on board Turkish Airlines Flight 981, when an explosive decompression resulted in the deaths of 346 people.

Following the Turkish Airlines disaster, an airworthiness directive was issued by the US' Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and all DC-10s underwent mandatory door modifications. The aircraft continued to fly with major carriers for decades thereafter, but the plane's tainted reputation coupled with its direct competition with Lockheed's L-1011 resulted in far fewer sales than the company had originally projected. The company made a last-ditch attempt to inject new life into the model with a stretched and upgraded version, designated the MD-11, but its limited range relative to equivalent models by Boeing and Airbus saw it sell poorly. In 1996 McDonell Douglas was acquired by Boeing, sealing the latter's domination of America's civil aerospace business.

Fast forward to the present, the Boeing 787 was a full six years in the making before its maiden flight in 2009. Following its first flight, six test prototypes ran up some 4,645 flight hours in the jet. About a quarter of these hours were flown by FAA flight test crews, the agency. And while the investigation into recent problems with the jet are still underway, Boeing spokespersons have noted that the hugely popular 777 model experienced similar 'teething pains' in its first few years of operation. And this Friday the FAA formally announced its opinion that the Dreamliner jet is indeed safe to operate. And in its communication surrounding the disaster, Boeing has emphasized the rigourousness of the testing that went into the 787's development. It seems as though the 'lateness' of its introduction is now being used as a selling point by the company.

In its corporate values, Boeing states that "We will strive for continuous quality improvement in all that we do, so that we will rank among the world's premier industrial firms in customer, employee and community satisfaction." Judging by the company's swift actions this week and its communication of the issues surrounding its newest and most prized product, the company certainly looks like it's upholding this pledge.

Addendum (January 15)

Since the writing of this post, the problems with the Boeing 787 appear to have worsened. Today an All Nippon Airways 787 was forced to make an emergency landing after smoke was seen in the cockpit. Both ANA and Japan Airlines announced today that they are grounding their 787 fleets until further notice. A spokesperson for Boeing asserted that the company is fully aware of the situation and that it "will be working with our customer and the appropriate regulatory agencies."

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