Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner:
Should The Jet Be Flying?
By Gary Stoller
Despite new government concerns about the safety of Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner aircraft, airlines haven’t stopped flying the problem-plagued wide-body aircraft.
The Federal Aviation Administration announced last month in an airworthiness directive all electrical power can shut down-and a pilot could lose control-if a 787 jet is continuously powered for 248 days. A software problem can cause the generator control units to “simultaneously”go into ‘fail-safe modes,”shutting down the electrical power, the FAA said.
The agency said it was immediately issuing the directive-without issuing notice of its proposed rule making or asking for public comment-because “an unsafe condition exists that requires the immediate adoption of this airworthiness directive.” The FAA said the problem was found by Boeing during laboratory tests, and the aircraft manufacturer is developing a software upgrade “that will address the unsafe condition.”
President Paul Hudson says the entire 787 fleet should be grounded until at least the temporary fix is implemented. The FAA, Boeing and some other safety experts say such action is unnecessary.
“Any problem that could cause an airliner to become uncontrollable needs to be fixed before the aircraft is allowed to fly,”Hudson says. “The FAA should ground each and every 787 until the airline or Boeing certifies that the temporary fix contained in the airworthiness directive has been applied.”
Hudson, who is also a member of the FAA’s Aviation Rulemaking Advisory Committee, says “The FAA and other national air safety authorities should require that Boeing has the permanent fix it has promised by late 2015 delivered, installed and independently tested.”
Boeing, which has delivered 271 787s to its customers since delivery began four years ago, says it is working on the software problem, and a fix should be ready in this year’s fourth quarter.
The FAA says grounding all 787s isn’t required, because it is “unlikely”that an airline “would maintain continuous electrical power on the four main generator control units for 248 days.”
Boeing spokesman Paul Bergman says all 787s in service “already have performed a power off/power on cycle in the course of performing maintenance activities,”eliminating “the extremely low risk of all six generators aboard the airplane losing power at the same time.”
Former National Transportation Safety Board member John Goglia says he is unaware of any aircraft being powered up for 248 consecutive days. He says power is “routinely removed”during a pre-flight check of an aircraft’s electrical system.
“I do not believe grounding the planes is necessary,”he says. “I think the risk to the traveling public is extremely low.”
Aviation consultant John Cox says the FAA’s directive was “a conservative approach to the problem,”and “there is no reason to consider grounding the airplane.”
Past aircraft groundings involved “a proven issue,”says Cox, a former airline pilot who was the top safety official for the Air Line Pilots Association union. “This is a case of a potential issue that has an effective mitigation.”
Cox says he would fly on a 787 “without hesitation”and let his family fly on the aircraft “without a second thought.”
Victoria Day, a spokeswoman for Airlines for America, the trade group representing U.S. airlines, says Boeing informed the group on April 20 after lab tests discovered the software problem.
Airlines “work in close coordination with FAA, Boeing and other stakeholders to maintain the highest level of safety for our customers, employees and aircraft,”Day says.
According to Boeing data, 31 customers-airlines and leasing companies-have received delivery of 787s since 2011. United Airlines operates 787 jets, and American Airlines began flying 787s this month. Delta Air Lines has deferred delivery of its order of 18 787 aircraft until 2020.
As of April 15, 2015, Boeing data reveals, 787 Dreamliner aircraft have flown 238,223 passenger flights worldwide and carried an estimated 44.4 million passengers since they began flying
The 787s’ recent software problem is the latest concern in a series of problems with the plane’s electrical system. In 2013, the FAA grounded all 787s for four months after two lithium-ion batteries overheated on two aircraft. It was the agency’s first grounding of an aircraft fleet since DC-10 jets were grounded in 1979.
In one 787 incident at Boston’s Logan airport in January 2013, firefighters worked 40 minutes to put out a blaze after the plane’s lithium-ion battery caught fire. Passengers had departed from the Japan Air Lines plane before the fire started.
Two weeks later, an All Nippon Airways 787 made an emergency landing, and passengers were evacuated after another lithium-ion battery caught fire. The 787 is the first aircraft type to make extensive use of such batteries to power its electrical systems.
The National Transportation Safety Board determined that the probable cause of the fire at Logan airport was an internal short circuit within a cell of the auxiliary power unit’s lithium-ion battery. The NTSB cited Boeing for a design failure and the FAA for failing to notice the design failure when it certified the plane.
Delivery of the first 787 jet was delayed about three years by various production problems. The problems included an electrical fire that broke out on a 787 test flight in 2010, halting certification flights for a few months.
Last year, the FAA approved an exemption that allowed Boeing to deliver to airlines its newest-model 787 jet, the 787-9, although two components, including the ram air turbine, didn’t meet federal regulations. The FAA said it approved the exemption, because it was improbable that all six power generators would fail simultaneously.
The agency last year also approved the 787-9’s predecessor, the twin-engine 787-8, to operate on overwater routes that fly up to 330 minutes from a landing field. Previously, the 787-8 was limited to routes of 180 minutes from a landing field.
Hudson says the FAA’s approval jeopardizes passenger and flight-crew safety.
“The FAA has dangerously allowed the 787 to fly up to 5 1/2 hours from the nearest landing zone, even after battery fires and numerous other operational incidents required grounding or emergency landings,”Hudson says.
“This mistake needs correction by restricting flights over water to three hours or less from the nearest landing zone until the 787 establishes a track record of trouble-free operations for at least three years-as is required for most other two-engine aircraft.”
(FlyersRights.org commissioned independent aviation safety journalist, Gary Stoller, to write about the government’s recent safety concerns with Boeing’s 787 aircraft. FlyersRights.com had no editorial control over the following article.)