Will the Dreamliner Fly Again?


The Boeing 787 Dreamliner is the world's most technologically advanced commercial jet, but it doesn't fly. Regulators worldwide have kept the global 787 fleet grounded since mid-January, after a series of malfunctions and safety concerns -- which Boeing CEO Jim McNerney initially referred to as normal "squawks" -- spectacularly culminated in battery fires on two separate aircraft. On Friday, Boeing came out with an ambitious plan to right that wrong.

The plane's grounding left airline customers, who paid as much as a quarter of a billion dollars for each Dreamliner, scrambling to make up for the loss of their jets. The Dreamliner's sole American customer, United Continental , announced Thursday that it was dropping the 787 from its schedule through at least June and going so far as to eliminate service along some routes, including Denver to Tokyo. Other global airliners are even more pessimistic: LOT Polish Airlines has given up on the aircraft until October and plans to sue Boeing to compensate for the losses incurred by grounding the plane.Boeing is looking to prove that this delay isn't as serious as all that, however, and on Friday, the company approached the Federal Aviation Administration with a plan that would put the 787 back in service by April.

Boeing's "catching on fire" problem traces back to faults with large lithium-ion batteries that power electrical systems on the plane.The batteries can overheat, emit smoke, and eventually combust mid-flight. The company's fix involves encasing the troublesome batteries within high-strength containment boxes to limit collateral damage from an overheated battery, as well as installing more insulation and a ventilation system that would prevent combustible gases from building up and help keep the batteries cool. Under Boeing's plan, planes could fly again after some testing and a regulatory certification of the suspect batteries, but the plane itself would not need complete recertification, resulting in an abbreviated process that would see the 787 back in service lickety-split.

I've been critical of Boeing's ability to solve problems within the timeframe it claims (the Dreamliner itself was three and a half years late), and this is no exception. Frankly, I think the odds of seeing the Dreamliner fly by April are about as good as those of seeing pigs fly. FAA administrator Michael Huerta hasn't even approved the proposal, never mind expressed confidence that Boeing can hold up its end of the deal. Japanese regulator Akihiro Ohta has pledged that certification will not be given simply for finding ways to compensate for overheating batteries; the root cause for the overheating must be found.

As a proud supporter of American industry, I would be happy to publicly declare in two months' time that I was very wrong, and Boeing handled the issue perfectly. Sadly, I don't think I'll be writing that article.

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