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A recent spate of mechanical glitches on Dreamliner jets has officials questioning the safety of Boeing’s newest – and most touted – airliner, and passengers wondering whether the 787 is safe for commercial travel.
For three days in a row this week, Boeing’s star plane has experienced high-profile problems. Yesterday a brake problem on a Dreamliner forced authorities to cancel an All Nippon Airways flight at Yamaguchi Ube Airport in Japan. On Tuesday, a Japan Airlines Boeing 787 readying for takeoff at Boston Logan International Airport sprang a leak from its main engine, spilling about 40 gallons of fuel onto the runway and causing safety workers to tow it back to the gate. Just one day earlier, an electrical fire broke out on an empty Boeing 787 Dreamliner jet at Boston Logan International Airport, after it had deplaned passengers arriving on a non-stop flight from Tokyo.
No one was seriously injured in any of the events, and the National Transportation Safety Board, an independent federal agency charged with investigating civil aviation accidents in the US, and the Federal Aviation Administration, the national aviation authority of the US, have ordered investigations into the incidents.
But this week’s problems are just the latest in a string of glitches plaguing Boeing’s newest jet, which entered commercial service in November 2011. Three other Dreamliners have experienced electrical problems or had their electrical systems checked for potential issues in recent weeks, while in December 2012, a Dreamliner operated by United Airlines and flying from Houston, Texas, to Newark, New Jersey, experienced mechanical issues and was diverted to New Orleans. Even in its test flights in 2010 and 2011, the jet experienced electrical problems and engine failures, CNN reports.
There are many possible reasons why the envelope-pushing jet has experienced problems. It continues to suffer the effects of a production schedule beset with delays and setbacks. More importantly, it’s outfitted with the very latest technology, making it prone to glitches. It is the first commercial jet built mostly from carbon-plastic fibres rather than conventional aluminium and steel, making it more lightweight, and therefore, fuel-efficient. The wide-body, twin-engine jet relies on a complex network of electrical systems rather than traditional pneumatic systems.
Packed with state-of-the-art technology, Boeing’s latest, most sophisticated, jet, is supposed to make air travel more comfortable, innovative and efficient. But is it safe? Until investigations are complete, it’s difficult to fully answer this question. But industry analysts say the recent problems pose more of an embarrassment to Boeing rather than a serious concern about safety.
“None of this is a showstopper, and none of this should signal this product is fundamentally flawed,” Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst at the consulting firm Teal Group, told the New York Times. “But whether these are design glitches or manufacturing glitches, either way it’s a serious hit to Boeing’s image.”
For its part, Boeing has come out and publicly defended its Dreamliner.
“I am 100% convinced that the aeroplane is safe to fly. I fly on it myself all the time,” Mike Sinnett, the chief project engineer for the 787 said during a press conference yesterday. Sinnet added that Boeing has “extreme confidence” in its Dreamliner.
What’s more, this week’s high-profile problems have thrust the jet into the spotlight, forcing Boeing, safety officials and airlines flying 787s to carefully inspect the planes to ensure safety. Boeing has about 800 Dreamliners – each costing $200 million – backordered for production, so it is in the company’s best interest to address the mechanical issues quickly and completely. And this scrutiny is surely good news for travellers.
“I wouldn't be concerned as a passenger,” John Hansman, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT in Boston, told ABC News. “This is a very good airplane, but it's very advanced. It's pushing the envelope.”