HOW WILL THE DREAMLINER STORY END?
By Joe Brancatelli
January 17, 2013 --Most of us weren't flying and some of us weren't even born the last time the Federal Aviation Administration grounded an entire model of commercial aircraft, something the agency did Wednesday evening when it suddenly ordered the Boeing 787 Dreamliner out of the skies.
Even your creaky, cranky companion here in Seat 2B wasn't frequently flying 34 years ago when the FAA grounded the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 several weeks after a crash killed more than 270 people. That 1979 tragedy--American Airlines Flight 191 plunged to earth just moments after takeoff from Chicago's O'Hare Airport--led to major maintenance and design changes on the DC-10. Some DC-10s, and its successor, the MD-11, continue to fly today.
But make no mistake: The DC-10 never fully recovered from its early reputation as a "suspect plane" among business travelers and the general flying public. Already locked in an unsustainable market share war with other first-generation widebody aircraft--the Boeing 747 and the Lockheed L1011--the DC-10 never reached its potential. Only about 650 of the aircraft, its military variants and the MD-11 were ever built.
Boeing already has nearly 900 orders for the 15-month-old Dreamliner and, at a list price of around $200 million a copy, we're talking big, big bucks. If there's more bad news after the FAA's grounding or the bureaucratic exorcism the agency ordered last Friday, the 787 runs the risk of being branded a "bad" plane that business travelers avoid and less-informed leisure travelers flatly refuse to fly.
The news has been almost all bad for Boeing in recent weeks. There have been glitches in electrical systems, fuel leaks and a cracked windshield. None of those seem to be related, but the FAA must see a pattern of problems with the Dreamliner's lithium-ion batteries. That's what caused a fire after landing on January 7 aboard a Japan Airlines 787 in Boston and apparently required the emergency landing of an All Nippon Airways Dreamliner in Japan on Wednesday.
After the ANA episode, the Japanese carriers voluntarily grounded their combined fleet of two dozen 787s on Wednesday morning U.S. time. About 12 hours later, the FAA made its call to ground the aircraft, which technically only covers the six Dreamliners operated by United Airlines (NYSE: UAL). But early Thursday morning Japan time, the Japanese Transport Ministry officially grounded the plane, too. A few hours after that, the European Aviation Safety Agency also put the brakes on the Dreamliner.
That was especially bad news for LOT Polish Airlines, the only European carrier with a Dreamliner. It launched its first-ever 787 flight on Wednesday morning from Warsaw to Chicago. A coterie of LOT officials, assorted dignitaries and aviation journalists were then stranded in Chicago when Wednesday night's Chicago-Warsaw return flight was unceremoniously cancelled.
Surely bad karma considering there are only about 50 Dreamliners in operation worldwide and they've only logged about 50,000 hours of flying. Worse, it comes after a rocky development period and three years of delays before the first Dreamliner entered commercial service in November, 2011.
Despite a massive publicity effort from Boeing, the Dreamliner has always had detractors. Constructed of lightweight composite material designed to deliver a fuel savings of about 20 percent, the Dreamliner also uses more battery-powered electricity than any other aircraft. Those factors raise the eyebrows of hidebound aviation types, who cluck about the new construction materials and fret about the lithium-ion batteries' real or imagined shortcomings. And while it is assembled in Boeing's factory in Everett, Washington, the Dreamliner is heavily outsourced. Key components coming from suppliers worldwide. That practice, too, has raised questions.
Of course, the $200 million question is the easiest one to ask: Is the Dreamliner safe? As I wrote in my column yesterday, no one really knows. Traditionally, we have judged aircraft on their life-and-death performance. If they don't crash and passengers live, the plane is "safe."
If they do crash and flyers die, people start wondering. They dredge up the De Havilland Comet, the world's first commercial jetliner. In the 1950s, the Comet suffered a series of mid-flight disasters that were eventually attributed to metal fatigue. And the Comet reminds people of a 1951 Jimmy Stewart movie called No Highway in the Sky. Stewart plays a lone, obsessive investigator who proves that a fictional, pre-Comet jet is doomed.
As a matter of objective fact, however, the Dreamliner's teething problems aren't worse than any other new model of aircraft. One example: The Airbus A380, which has been flying since 2007. The double-decked aircraft has had been plagued by wing cracks and suffered a serious in-flight engine explosion. Most other aircraft, even those that have operated safely for decades, record incidents and accidents that are as serious as the ones dogging the Dreamliner.
Business travelers I've contacted since the FAA action on Wednesday evening seem to understand. Most aren't too concerned.
All but one, in fact, seem convinced the Dreamliner would work out its problems and be just fine. All but one said they'd have no problem flying a 787 when it gets back into the skies.
"I didn't worry when the FAA grounded all those Southwest 737s and American Airlines MD-80s," says William Lawson Smith, referring to safety- and maintenance-related actions the agency took in 2011 and 2008. "I'm sure not going to sweat a plane I haven't gotten to fly yet."
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.
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