THE DREAMLINER DOESN'T SCARE ME
By Joe Brancatelli
January 16, 2013 --In a few weeks I'm scheduled to climb aboard a LOT Polish Airlines flight to Warsaw. The aircraft should be a new Boeing 787 Dreamliner. And I'm not giving my Warsaw flight a second's worth of extra thought.
Until and unless someone proves otherwise, I assume that the Dreamliner is safe to fly. It is the same assumption I make about every single aircraft in commercial service with the world's major airlines.
I understand the extreme negativity surrounding the Dreamliner, which has operated commercially for 15 months. There have been a half-dozen distressing incidents this month and the FAA last Friday announced a sort of bureaucratic exorcism. Throw in the fact that the 787 truly is revolutionary--it's constructed mostly of composite materials--and a media feeding frenzy is inevitable.
But besides being a business traveler, I'm in the media and I know how our feeding frenzies work. We gather up a few facts, related or not, detail the plane's development, and cite a quote-for-hire "expert" or two. Then, with all the gravitas we can muster, we ask the self-evident and self-serving question: Is this [insert aircraft name] truly safe?
The answer is: we don't know. We never know. Our only true measure is statistical: If no one dies, the plane is safe. If too many crash, maybe they're not.
I am not an aerospace engineer and I do not play one in this column. I have no choice but to rely on the experts who build the planes, the regulators who approve its construction, the inspectors who investigate its processes and the airlines, pilots and mechanics who operate and maintain them.
Just as I have when issues have been raised about the airworthiness of any plane that has debuted during my 30-plus years on the road, I take it as a matter of flying faith that the experts know what they are doing. Other than not flying, or boycotting a particular type of aircraft or a specific airline, none of this is in my control. I do my job and hope to hell that everyone else tasked to create the Boeing 787 Dreamliner is doing theirs.
My literal ignorance about the finer mechanical and manufacturing points of the 787 does not mean I'm stupid. If nothing else, I can put 2 and 2 together. And given what's happened to the Dreamliner since the beginning of the year, I don't see a pattern that indicates a systemic problem with the twin-engine aircraft.
What does a post-landing battery fire (on a Japan Airlines Dreamliner at Boston/Logan on January 7) have to do with a fuel leak (a second JAL Boeing 787, also at Logan, on January 8)? What does a brake issue (on an All Nippon Airways Dreamliner in January 9) have to do with a cracked windshield (on another ANA 787 on January 11)? And what do any of these problems have to do with the issues that delayed the aircraft's debut for more than three years?
The answer, of course, is: virtually nothing. The Dreamliner's glitches, both small and large, are isolated and disconnected, not unlike the problems that plague a newly constructed house, the first production models of a new line of automobiles or a new piece of computer software.
But, surely, you say, it's unwise to ignore the sheer number of incidents that have occurred in the last 45 days, starting when a United Airlines (NYSE: UAL) Dreamliner made an emergency landing in New Orleans on December 4
In answer to that "compilation," I direct you to The Aviation Herald, an invaluable site that maintains a chronicle of incidents that occur on commercial flights. Shocked to see all the problems on workhorse aircraft such as the Boeing 737 or the Airbus A320? You shouldn't be. They aren't news because the planes aren't new. It's hard to create a media frenzy around a 20- or 30-year-old series of aircraft that has operated for millions of hours and safely transported tens of millions of passengers around the world.
But the Boeing 787 is new. Only 50 are in commercial service and, according to Boeing, the 787 has only logged 50,000 flight hours. That's where the FAA "joint review" comes into play. Teams of FAA officials and Boeing engineers will crawl around the paperwork, examine procedures and processes and pay more careful attention to the Dreamliner's electrical and mechanical systems.
I fully expect the panel to recommend changes to how the Boeing 787 is built and/or maintained. You don't expect a major bureaucratic undertaking like this to conclude that nothing needs to be done. But, remember: The joint review's suggestions will be for changes to processes and procedures that have been under a microscope since Boeing announced the aircraft in January, 2003. This won't be the first time a engineer or regulator will examine the Dreamliner. It'll be the millionth--or ten millionth--time.
In the end, for me at least, it comes down to this: If the FAA were truly worried about the Dreamliner's airworthiness, it would have grounded the plane. Groundings aren't uncommon. The most recent was last year, when Qantas of Australia stopped flying its Airbus A380s after it found cracks in the wings. You should also remember that the most serious incident on an Airbus A380--the explosive engine failure aboard Qantas Flight 32 in November, 2010 --was much more serious than any involving the Dreamliner.
I wrote the paragraph above on Monday, before JAL and ANA voluntarily grounded their fleets of Dreamliners on Wednesday. An emergency landing of an ANA 787 attributed to an "unusual smell" and a battery glitch led to Wednesday's decision.
But even this action does not concern me. The Japanese culture is different than ours. In fact, an ANA executive explaining the grounding "apologize[d] for the grave concern and trouble we have caused our passengers, their families and others."
That means the Japanese carriers grounded the Dreamliner more from a sense of what was culturally correct rather than what was aeronautically sound. I respect Japanese sensibilities, but I don't let them drive my business travel decisions.
So when they call my flight to Warsaw and I see the plane is a Dreamliner, I'll board without fear or trepidation.
They build 'em. I fly 'em. That's the lot of any business traveler. We assume the best because, to be honest, we'd never leave for the airport if we assumed the worst.
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.
THE FINE PRINT This column is Copyright © 2013 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2013 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.