UPDATE – The FAA has identified another manufacturing quality issue on the Dreamliner. The Boeing 787 has a new nose issue in the pressure bulkhead area. It has been found in undelivered Dreamliners during inspections, the regulatory agency confirmed on July 12 in a statement to Reuters and later by Boeing.
We don’t know for sure if this is a completely new issue or if it is related to the previous quality issues in this area. Problems in the nose section 41 have been identified since October, when Boeing, the FAA, and 787-suppliers started an extensive review of the Dreamliner production and quality processes.
As we discussed in our story in April, the 787 has a number of quality issues. The first was found in August 2019 in the aft fuselage and included incorrect shimming between sections 47 and 48. This has been traced to a software issue that incorrectly read the size of the shims, which are tiny pieces of composites that fill up any gaps where the sections join.
A year later, in August 2020, a skin flatness problem was found on the inner mold-line of the aft fuselage barrels. Although the imperfection was the size of a human hair, together with the shimming issue it formed a safety of flight issue. The extensive review not only identified quality issues in the aft sections but also on the center fuselage and the nose.
As a result, Boeing paused 787 deliveries in October until March 26, when it thought it had traced the root cause of the problem and could restart deliveries after re-work on aircraft with any deficiencies. Then, in May, the FAA raised concerns about Boeing’s inspection methods. Deliveries were again suspended and continue to this day, although one 787-9 for Turkish Airlines was delivered in June that had been cleared earlier.
Additional rework required around forward pressure bulkhead
Boeing has confirmed reports that the quality issue has to do with gaps around the forward pressure bulkhead that, although very tiny, are beyond design specifications. In a July 13 press release on its June deliveries, Boeing says that during inspections and rework associated with the verification methodology for 787 fuselages, it has “identified additional rework that will be required on undelivered 787s.”
The statement continues: “Based on our assessment of the time required to complete this work, Boeing is reprioritizing production resources for a few weeks to support the inspection and rework. As that work is performed, the 787 production rate will temporarily be lower than five per month and will gradually return to that rate. Boeing now expects to deliver fewer than half of the 787s currently in inventory this year.”
In the first six months of 2021, only fourteen Dreamliners have been delivered, of which twelve in Q2. As there were some 100 undelivered 787s by the end of Q1, this would mean that Boeing still has some 85-88 Dreamliners in stock. Not all might need re-work, Boeing told Airinsight in May. In April, CEO David Calhoun said he hoped that most of the 100 aircraft would be delivered before the end of this year. However, the July 13 statement confirms there will be fewer deliveries than half of the 85-88 undelivered airplanes now. So this would result in 40-44 for the whole of 2021 compared to 53 in 2020.
“We will continue to take the necessary time to ensure Boeing airplanes meet the highest quality prior to delivery. Across the enterprise, our teams remain focused on safety and integrity as we drive stability, first-time quality, and productivity in our operations,” Boeing says in the statement.
Spirit aware of nose issues in October
During its May 5 investor’s call, Spirit Aerosystems CEO Tom Gentile indicated that the issue with section 41 was understood and would be corrected: “We identified some similar fit and finishing issues that they had identified on other sections of the aircraft. So the rework and forward loss are related to us doing rework on those units.” If this also included the forward pressure bulkhead is not confirmed. The required rework and engineering costs on just the 787 led to a $29 million pretax forward loss in Spirit’s first quarter.
The FAA is waiting for Boeing to produce additional data before it will determine whether the company’s solution meets safety regulations. The agency says that “although the issue poses no immediate threat to flight safety, Boeing has committed to fixing these airplanes before resuming deliveries.” The additional data should also confirm if the issue is limited to just undelivered aircraft, or will require “similar modifications on 787s already in commercial service.” The August 2019 shimming issue and September 2020 skin flatness issue required rework on eight Dreamliners that had already been delivered to Singapore Airlines, ANA, Etihad, Air Europa, Norwegian, and Air Canada, all produced in early 2019.
David Calhoun said during the Q1 in April that “significant progress” had been on the review of the 787 program. During the investor’s call, then-acting CFO Greg Smith warned of a potential reach-forward loss on the Dreamliner. We have to wait until July 28 to hear more on this, when Boeing reports its Q2 and HY1-results.