Will the Dreamliner Fly Again?

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The Boeing (NYSE: BA  ) 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 (NYSE: UAL  ) , 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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Read/Post Comments (7) | Recommend This Article (3)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

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  • Report this Comment On February 23, 2013, at 9:28 PM, whsteffan wrote:

    Daniel Fairy must have spent so much time acquiring his PHDs in Aeronautical Engineering and Marketing that he forgot everything he ever learned.

    In the first place the 787 is flying as an experimental aircraft with permission from the FAA

    in the second place Boeing has proposed a broad approach all encompasing fix to the battery problem to the FAA

    Finally Boeing has stated that all the 787's will fly in April.

    I suggest that Mr Fairy come clean about his positions as a Boeing short and be made to liquidate or get the hell off your editorial board

  • Report this Comment On February 23, 2013, at 11:36 PM, rh33 wrote:

    I am disappointed in this article. There is no new information in it, just the same old stuff that has been in the news for days and weeks. Mr. Ferry also seems to lack perspective. The idea that Boeing might be required to redo the whole plane certification process on the Dreamliner because of a battery problem makes no sense. The headline question is also bizarre. Of course the Dreamliner will fly! Does anyone think the plane will be abandoned because of a bettery problem? Of course not. At most, they will switch to another kind of battery. I wonder what Motley Fool is trying to accomplish by publishing articles like this.

  • Report this Comment On February 23, 2013, at 11:38 PM, TMFCatoMinor wrote:

    Not a short here, just not a buyer. We are required to disclose all our financial positions in the companies we write about, whether long, short, or options.

    I guess you just skimmed the article. That's fine, we're all busy. I noted that Boeing proposed a battery fix, I also noted that regulators haven't yet accepted that proposal. I also noted that Boeing's plan would have the Dreamliner back in the skies by April; I just don't believe them. They also said the first commercial 787 would be delivered in 2008, and that certainly didn't happen.

    Also, I'm curious as to whether your misspelling of my last name was a simple mistake or meant as a homophobic insult.

  • Report this Comment On February 23, 2013, at 11:39 PM, TMFCatoMinor wrote:

    Sorry, I cross-posted with rh33. The above post is meant for whsteffan.

  • Report this Comment On February 23, 2013, at 11:48 PM, TMFCatoMinor wrote:

    rh33, sorry you didn't learn anything new. Sure, the Dreamliner's been down for weeks, but Boeing's proposed fix is new, even if I wasn't the first person to report it. Personally I wouldn't be surprised if the certification problem won't be confined to the battery issue, because that wasn't the only problem reported on the plane in the weeks leading up to its grounding. The 787 is like nothing Boeing's ever made, precisely because so much of it wasn't made by Boeing at all, but constructed by suppliers and delivered in pre-fabricated sub-assemblies. After 3.5 years of delays, the Dreamliner was "delivered" only to be grounded shortly later. I actually view this setback as evidence that the Dreamliner was never ready to launch at all. We're still in beta testing, here, but we're doing it with launch customers.

  • Report this Comment On February 24, 2013, at 11:24 AM, Colin1497a wrote:

    Daniel's way off base. I have no position in Boeing or relationship to the company, but I do work in the aerospace industry and regularly deal with aircraft certification, and I did do some work related to the program several years ago. When friends asked me weeks ago how this would turn out, I told them that they'll be back flying again relatively soon, and that there will be 2 fixes:

    1st fix (airworthiness directive) will be a patch and will probably involve regular inspections and tests and will be a real pain for the operators, but will get them up and running.

    2nd fix will involve a more significant redesign of the APU battery system and will remove excessive inspections and tests and allow the operator to go on normally.

    This is the first fix, it will be approved, though the FAA may push back and ask them make some slight modifications or additions for the sake of public appearance and ego.

    The idea that they will wait until they've found the root cause is just silliness. They will look at (have looked at) probable root causes based on information available and they will address the failure modes associated with them. They will conduct (have been conducting) tests to validate that they have addressed those failure modes. They will take corrective and preventative actions against those probable root causes. It's quite possible that they will not be 100% certain what the actual root cause was for at least one of the events -- ever. Sometimes the evidence isn't there.

    Beyond that, the additional oversight and inspections that will be put in place in the initial airworthiness directive, and the corrective and preventative actions put in place, will likely lead to the discovery of additional issues that will also be corrected. That's how these things work. In the end you get a mature system.

    The author is both right and wrong. Boeing was late in meeting an original schedule that only fools thought they would meet. Distributed production, which the author alludes to, isn't the big problem, distributed design was the biggest problem. Boeing outsourced too much design responsibility to the major suppliers, but actually maintained tighter control than most people realize.

    Boeing has incorporated a lot of new technology, both in specific component designs, as well as in systems architecture, but saying "We're still in beta testing, here, but we're doing it with launch customers" is moronic and displays a fundamental lack of understanding of the aerospace industry. Early delivery customers understand that there will be maturity/configuration issues with their aircraft. They don't like it, but it happens almost universally. The fact that there's something bad enough to cause a grounding like this is a little surprising, but the truth is, it happens. The A380 has had 2 major airworthiness issues, one with fatigue issues in aircraft structure, and one with engines coming apart. There will be others on the 787, I'm certain.

    Producing widebody aircraft like these is one of the most complicated things that we humans do. There's a reason only 2 companies on the planet do it.

  • Report this Comment On February 24, 2013, at 11:43 AM, Colin1497a wrote:

    After typing my comments I read the Reuters article. Additional comments:

    Unofficial sources are saying that they are addressing all the potential sources that they found in their fault tree analysis, not waiting for a root cause to be determined. Shocking. Oh, wait, that's what I just said they'd do.

    Unofficial sources say this isn't a patch, but a fix for everything. This is possible, but I'd wager that they will still have a high inspection rate that will be changed in a future revision to the AD. I also suspect that a better version of the fix will come in the future. The first (fast) version is always a bit cludgy and expensive.

    NTSB says possibly they'll never find the root cause for the Boston failure. Not shocking to anyone who has seen the photos.

    Reuters article is actually relatively well written, I'd recommend it if you're interested in the subject.

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