[UPDATE: The WSJ is reporting that United Airlines has discovered improperly installed wiring on one of its 787s. This was discovered in an inspection in the wake of Monday’s JAL 787 electrical fire in Boston. The improperly installed bundle of wiring connects to the APU battery which is the suspected cause of the JAL 787 fire. This is the third problem for Boeing’s 787 in past two days.]
For the second day in a row, a JAL Boeing 787 has experienced a problem. Today, a fuel leak has caused a scheduled Japan Air Lines flight to return to the gate in Boston after a 40 gallon fuel spill. This is on the heels of an electrical fire yesterday on a different JAL 787 in Boston, which was caused by a battery that serves the auxiliary power unit, which was operated after the aircraft arrived on the ground. Fortunately, neither incident resulted in any injuries.
Photo WCVB-TV Channel 5 Boston
These new incidents, after several prior incidents on United and ANA 787s, have begun to cause speculation as to how ready the aircraft really is for service, and whether these problems are simply typical of problems that occur with new aircraft, or something more serious. Apparently, some analysts believe the problems serious enough to downgrade Boeing stock, as BB&T just cut their rating on Boeing.
The fuel leak follows an earlier requirement for inspection of fuel lines on the 787 to guard against a fuel leak, as Boeing was aware of a potential problem and has advised its customers to inspect a coupling, and is preparing a permanent fix. As the incident just occurred, we do not yet know whether this fuel leak is related to the earlier issue, or caused by a different problem.
The electrical system on the 787 has come under scrutiny since an on-board fire during certification testing, a precautionary landing by United Airlines last month, and the fire yesterday on a JAL 787 in Boston. Because the 787 utilizes new technology control systems that save weight, but require additional electric power rather than hydraulics to move flight controls, the electrical system on the aircraft is more robust, and requires higher voltage than older aircraft.
The combination of electrical problems causing a fire and a fuel leak are disconcerting, particularly occurring on consecutive days, and may result in a public relations nightmare for Boeing. Associating the words “fire” and “fuel leak” with the 787 is not reassuring to passengers, especially in the same sentence, and there is concern among airlines that the image of the 787 could be impacted should the recent incidents continue to occur.
What does this mean for the 787?
The number of incidents for this aircraft isn’t unusual for an airplane entering service. In the old days, when the 747 was introduced, Pan Am had to ground more than half a dozen of the aircraft shortly after introduction, and was hiding them in hangars all around JFK airport to keep the press at bay. Incidents and problems that need to be fixed do occur with new aircraft, but today, with the internet and social media, word gets out a lot faster, and draws more scrutiny. Given the multiple delays in the 787 program, any issue is magnified given the history of the development program.
The key is for Boeing to firmly address the issues and ensure that the airplane is right, which they are diligently working on. The danger is that analysts rush to judgement, downgrade Boeing, and damage the reputation of what will, in the end, turn out to be an excellent and extremely reliable airplane.
If the airplane continues to have issues, it could gain a poor reputation among business travelers as a result of poor dispatch reliability, and its reputation will suffer. That is the last thing Boeing needs or wants, and the company is working diligently on both the various electrical and fuel leak problems that have been experienced.
The 787 is a very high tech aircraft, and in many ways is pioneering new technologies that offer substantial benefits. Of course, since the pioneers get the arrows, they also come with technological risks, the results of which we are seeing in these nagging problems.
The real answers will come from the investigation of the problems, and the solutions provided so that they don’t occur again. The problems to date do not, on the surface, appear to be insurmountable or the result of design flaws. But until the results of the investigations are complete, we really don’t have enough information to form a logical conclusion.
Would We Fly the Airplane?
Yes, the 787 passed FAA certification and is a safe aircraft, designed with multiple fail-safe systems and is fitted with the latest cockpit technology. We would get on board.
Are Problems Like this Typical of New Airplanes?
Yes, and quite often aircraft manufacturers will offer airlines a “launch customer” discount to those that are the first to operate a new type, understand that the discount reflects advanced compensation for the inevitable delays that will occur as minor problems on the aircraft emerge in the first few months of operations. The 787 is still very early in its life cycle, and problems can be expected.
Is there a Problem with the 787?
It is too early to tell whether any of the incidents are a result of a design flaw, a manufacturing process flaw, or whether they can easily be corrected. We will need time, and the results of the investigations of these two most recent incidents. The use of a Lithium battery on board required a special condition in the certification process from the FAA, and the investigation will determine whether a change needs to be made to the specification or design. Given limitations on carrying such batteries on board, and two fires in cargo aircraft carrying such batteries, the possibility exists that a different battery technology may be required in the future, or different shielding installed.
With respect to the fuel leak, we do not yet know whether this leak derived from an already known problem for which inspections were being conducted, or if a new problem has emerged, and whether it was only applicable to one aircraft, or could have implications for the fleet. The investigation of the incident will reveal the depth of the potential problem, as well as what needs to be done to fix it.
The 787 was the first airplane at Boeing with major subsystems outsourced to suppliers, and the results included delays to the program and quality control issues which Boeing was forced to address. The delays in the introduction of the aircraft cost Boeing billions of dollars, and resulted in massive payments to airlines for late deliveries.
The delays in the 787 program and issues uncovered required a massive retrofitting of aircraft in process on the assembly line to enable them to meet the final specifications, and created a difficult manufacturing environment for Boeing. The earliest aircraft produced required significant re-work to bring them in line with the final certified design. While we do not believe this process was a contributing factor to the incidents involving early aircraft, the initial production ramp-up at Boeing was problematic given the numerous program delays and requirements for rework. Boeing is still delivering aircraft that include some initial rework, and the first “clean” aircraft that requires no rework will be somewhere around the 90th aircraft delivered.
With the program three and one half years late, substantial rework required, and now a few incidents of precautionary landings, fires, and fuel leaks, the reputation of the 787 is taking a hit in the media. The reputation hit for being late, and requiring rework, is justified, and has already cost Boeing a small fortune. Any hit to its reputation based on the recent incidents remains premature.