How Bad Are the Dreamliner's Problems?

By James Fallows

(Please see update below.) The Boeing 787 "Dreamliner" is a beautiful airplane in some serious trouble right now. You should read our Megan Garber's look at the news yesterday. But also please check Patrick Smith's overview yesterday at his Ask the Pilot site. (Smith has re-launched the site in expanded-and-even-better form after its departure from its previous home at Salon. Here's Smith's earlier take on what is nice about the Dreamliner; and here's my snapshot of the plane's interior, showing the headroom and so on, from its demo visit to National Airport in DC last spring.)

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Smith makes the point that repeated battery fires in the 787, and the subsequent grounding of the fleet by the FAA and other airlines and authorities around the world, are obviously terrible news for Boeing. But so far the defect appears to be specific and correctable -- a problem with the lithium-ion batteries Boeing has chosen for the plane --  rather than some mysterious, unbounded threat that could undo the 787 project as a whole. For a fascinating book about how one such mysterious problem destroyed an entire aircraft project and ultimately much of a national aircraft industry, see Sam Howe Verhovek's Jet Age, about the British Comet airplane that pioneered the commercial jetliner industry before its came to grief. Patrick Smith explains why the 787's current predicament seems different:

This is a huge and costly black eye for Boeing and its customers. But it could be a lot worse... The grounding came preemptively, before anybody was seriously hurt or killed. It's also helpful that the problem, as we understand it thus far, is eminently fixable. Burning batteries are serious, but this isn't a structural defect that'll wind up costing billions.

Leading up to the 787′s launch, all of the talk was focused on the uniqueness of plane's carbon-fiber construction. Any serious failure on that front could have doomed the entire 787 project to failure, and possibly dragged all of Boeing down with it. But to this point, composites have been a nonexistent issue. These other problems are nothing by comparison, and a year from now I suspect all of this will be forgotten.

In addition to the carbon-fiber issue, the other "fundamental" question about the Dreamliner has been whether Boeing erred in outsourcing so much of the plane's manufacturing and design. Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times went into this in depth in a celebrated article two years ago; I also address it in China Airborne. Even Boeing officials now concede that the company farmed out too much of the crucial work of making the plane. Thus it exposed itself to unexpected delays, problems in matching up parts and systems produced by different suppliers, design decisions that were out of its immediate control, and other challenges

These are exactly the limits-to-outsourcing that Charles Fishman discussed in his recent cover story. If you'd like to read a fascinating, dissident inside-Boeing account of these decisions and early warnings of their consequences, see this PDF of a 2001 presentation by Dr. L.J. Hart Smith, which I also discuss in my book and whose cover page is shown below.


UPDATE For informed comment on the battery problems and what the episode reveals about Boeing's relationship with the FAA and with its own union employees, see this Leeham News dispatch. 

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