Boeing’s 787 Nightmare, Should We Be Concerned?

As we saw the introduction to Boeing’s beautiful, state of the art new 787 airliner, the thought of it having minor growing pains is always a possibility. History has always shown when a new airliner is developed; it’s not uncommon that issues arise here and there. However, Boeing has had a real challenge with those teething issues the past few months. The most recent issues took place at Boston’s Logan International airport with two Japan Airlines 787s. One of the 787s suffered a fire caused by an ion lithium battery which is used to power the airplanes auxiliary power unit (APU). The APU is primarily used to start the engines. The fire apparently broke out when the batter exploded. Fortunately, no was on board the aircraft. This incident raises concerns about the battery. Lithium batteries have always been known to overheat and explode. They are the primary power source of everyday lap tops. So, why does Boeing use a lithium battery to power the APU? These are questions the National Transportation Safety Board is currently addressing as they investigate the actual cause of the fire.


The other incident involved a fuel leak on another Japan Airlines 787 while the aircraft was taxing out for takeoff from Boston to Tokyo. The airplane leaked 40 gallons of jet fuel from the wing. Although, the issue was more minor than the fire and the airplane was fixed and cleared to take off without further incident, it still raises the concern on what might have happened if the leak wasn’t noticed by another airliner. How serious could it have been? Would the airplane have continued to lose fuel in flight? Again, these are questions aviation experts and analysts are asking. The NTSB declined to investigate the leak, stating that it was a maintenance issue and not an accident. In December the FAA issued an inspection of all 787s fuel systems after two other 787s suffered similar incidents. Those leaks stemmed from an incorrectly assembled fuel line coupling. It seems this particular Japan Airlines jet fell through the cracks.


The negative buzz on the 787 started last month when a United Airlines 787 was forced to make an emergency landing in New Orleans after the airplanes suffered an electrical failure on its power distribution panel.  A Qatar Airlines 787 also canceled a flight due to the same issue.


So, what is going on with the 787? Is it a lemon? Hardly, considering the airplane was 3 years late from its original delivery schedule. Boeing took their time attempting to perfect the airplane. The 787 came with extremely high expectations for Boeing, so it only seems natural to see all the scrutiny. It is the first generation of its kind so minor teething issues shouldn’t be too uncommon, however, when fires become the outcome of some of those issues, it raises some serious concerns.


The 787 is Boeing’s first, all composite material airliner. It is also the first time Boeing outsourced the manufacturing of many of the airplane’s crucial components outside of their main facility in Seattle. Sweden, China, South Korea, Italy, France, England, Australia and Japan were among their international partners for manufacturing those components. This in itself poses a problem. Boeing no longer has the ability to monitor the entire manufacturing process. The other problem can also be the fact that aside from England and France, none of these countries have ever manufactured an airliner. Prior to the launch of the first 787 into service, some of the major sets backs during production of the airliner stemmed from a lack of understanding each countries metric system so when it came time for a complete assembly, crucial attachment points were not consistent which ultimately caused delivery delays. The airplane was three and a half years behind schedule. Below is a list of the outsourced parts and suppliers. The airplane was assembled at Boeings main plant in Seattle as well as Charleston, South Carolina.


USA, Wichita, Boeing – flight deck and fuselage
USA, Charleston, Global Aeronautica* – mid and rear section fuselage, tail
Canada, Winnipeg, Boeing – wings and fuselage fairings
Japan, Kawasaki – landing gear well, fixed wing section, forward fuselage
Japan, Handa, Fuji – center wing box
Japan, Nagoya, Mitsubishi – wing box
Australia, Boeing – moving leading/trailing wing edges
USA, Wichita, Spirit Aerosystems – nose
France, Latercore – passenger doors


Should we worry about boarding a 787? The answer is, no. Growing pains for a new airliner aren’t uncommon and more often than not, they are expected. Boeing surely has a contingency plan to rectify the issues as soon as humanly possible in order to keep current operators of the airplane happy as well as keeping the positive buzz alive in order to attract new orders.  It’s important to understand the amount of scrutiny this airplane was under due to its long delay. The expectations were extremely high and given the recent incidents, the airplane has performed above and beyond what was ever expected. Perhaps Boeing will learn a valuable lesson that outsourcing such a large project like the 787 has very limited benefits. If, in fact that turns out to be the culprit. Perhaps, these issues are maintenance issues and not the fault of Boeing. Time will tell.